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When Los Angeles Rams Coach George Allen named Dick Vermeil the first special teams coach in pro football, in 1969, most of the other NFL coaches thought it was just another gimmick from an obsessed man. In those days special teams were called suicide squads, and there was nothing sophisticated about that segment of the game. All it took was guts, and most clubs' idea of special teams preparation was to brush up on the kicking game for an hour on Saturday morning. Allen, however, believed that a more studious approach to the coverage and return of kickoffs and punts could result in two or three more victories a season.
By now, in the age of parity in the NFL, all coaches have come to realize that Allen's emphasis on special teams wasn't so kooky. With most clubs, special teams are viewed as one third of the game plan, and special teams players are among the most skilled athletes on the field. Coach Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills ranks special teams second in importance to defense. "As far as I'm concerned, my special teams coach is a coordinator," says Levy, who, as it happens, succeeded Vermeil as Allen's special teams coach in 1970.
Superb play by the Bills' special teams early in the 1990 season spurred Buffalo on to an eight-game winning streak en route to the AFC championship. On Sept. 30, the Denver Broncos led the Bills 21-9 early in the fourth quarter, when Buffalo's Nate Odomes blocked a field goal, igniting a 20-point scoring spree in 77 seconds. The next week the Bills were losing 24-21 to the Los Angeles Raiders midway through the fourth quarter, when Steve Tasker blocked a Raider punt, and then James Williams scooped up the ball and raced 38 yards for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
Special teams have become almost as specialized as the rest of pro football. The San Diego Chargers have two special teams coaches. Washington Redskins special teams coach Wayne Sevier works his players twice a day for a total of two hours in training camp and then runs them through three 15-minute practice sessions and a 40-minute meeting every practice day during the season.
Coaches scour the waiver wire and Plan B free-agent lists for skilled punt blockers and long snappers. Teams covet a player with the ability of Albert Lewis, the Kansas City Chiefs' cornerback who blocked four punts last season, giving him 10 blocks, including one in the postseason, for his career.
Special teams strategy is becoming more intricate, too. "In the '70s, we had three kickoff returns—center, left and right," says Seattle Seahawks special teams coach Rusty Tillman, who was captain of the Redskins' special teams from 1974 to '77, including four years when Allen was the Washington coach. "Now, when I break down film of an opponent's last four games, I will see as many as 15 different blocking schemes." Special teams coaches keep an elaborate set of statistics, in as many as 17 categories, and they will time each kickoff, punt and field goal attempt with three stopwatches.
"Special teams play requires a lot of discipline," says Frank Gansz, who coaches the Detroit Lions' unit. "Every situation unfolds differently. It takes a great deal of practice and a great deal of study. Sure, you still need players with a lot of animalistic emotion, but there are no full-blown wild men anymore. A reckless guy will hurt the team more than help it. Today's best special-teamers are very bright and pretty squared away."
What follows are profiles of three of the best technicians of special teams play—men who have special talents on and off the field.