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EVERY NFL coach purports to place a premium on special teams, but few of them agree on the ideal makeup of a successful unit. That's particularly true when it comes to deciding whether or not to use the team's best players. Should starters play on punts and kickoffs, where some of the most violent collisions take place? Some clubs exclude their position starters from special teams duty as much as possible; for others, only quarterbacks and franchise running backs and wide receivers are off-limits.
"There's an unbelievable difference in where teams fall on the spectrum," says Bobby April, who coaches the Bills' highly regarded special teams. "Our philosophy is that you want guys out there who are really hungry; you want guys who are tenacious and aggressive and get after it. A lot of starters won't give you that. It's not that they're not team players, but it's human nature that if you're not rewarded for something, you don't want to do it.
"If a starting middle linebacker plays poorly on special teams, there aren't a lot of ramifications except that your special teams are not very good. But you're not going to cut him or demote him, and he knows that. So you have to decide who has the constitution to go out there on special teams and kick ass. Some starters will, and some starters won't."
An informal SI survey of coaches revealed that most NFL teams use some starting offensive and defensive linemen on field goal and PAT units because those plays don't require downfield running. There's less uniformity on what some coaches call the Big Four: return and coverage units for punts and for kickoffs. Those lineups are usually made up of reserve linemen, plus starters and reserves at linebacker, defensive back and tight end. How many starters and how often they're used varies widely.
The preference of the Broncos, Browns, Bucs, Chiefs, Colts, Lions, Ravens and Steelers is to leave the special teams to backups and a select group of starters, primarily from the defense. However, on the Jets, Patriots, Redskins, Titans and Vikings everyone except quarterbacks and some high-salaried skill-position players is liable to be assigned to coverage and return teams.
"I tell the defensive and offensive players, 'If you get tired, you're coming out of the defense or offense, not out of special teams,'" said Jets coach Eric Mangini. "Those plays relate to field position, where you start or what you have to defend. It's so important to win that battle each week."
Texans special teams coach Joe Marciano uses a rotation at some spots to keep his players fresh; starting linebackers Morlon Greenwood and Danny Clark, for instance, alternate assignments at guard on the punt team. "It's the guys who don't come off the field, like middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, that I don't use on special teams," says Marciano. "It's hard to get mileage out of guys like that."
But sometimes even superstar players get the call. Inconsistency on coverage teams compelled the Broncos to employ All-Pro corner Champ Bailey, one of their fastest defenders and surest tacklers, as the last man back on kickoffs. The move paid off when Bailey made four touchdown-saving open-field tackles in Denver's first four games. Other elite players who see time on special teams include Ed Reed of the Ravens, Ronde Barber of the Bucs, Sean Taylor of the Redskins and Rodney Harrison of the Patriots. Even linebacker Junior Seau, a 38-year-old future Hall of Famer, has played some kick coverage for New England.