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The first half of the season has had compelling story lines: the fall of Favre, the return of Roethlisberger, Moss madness, the decline of Dallas. The coaching seat is heating up under Mike Singletary in San Francisco and John Fox in Carolina, and it's downright scorching the Cowboys' Wade Phillips. Young quarterbacks in St. Louis (Sam Bradford), Tampa Bay (Josh Freeman) and just maybe Cleveland (Colt McCoy) have given hope to woebegone franchises, while Mike Shanahan might have fallen out of love with Donovan McNabb in Washington. The Jets and the Giants could play a subway Super Bowl deep in the heart of Texas. Cool year so far—and weird: If the season had been seven weeks long, the six NFC playoff teams would have been different from the six that made the postseason last January.
But there's a special place for special teams this season. In 2008, through seven NFL weeks, according to Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, there were 38 of what we'll call "explosive plays" on special teams: touchdown returns, blocks and turnovers. This year, through seven weeks: 63.
OCT. 3 INDIANAPOLIS AT JACKSONVILLE
I'm just thinking, Don't overpower it. I play golf. I know when you swing easier and contact the ball better, it goes farther and straighter. Same with kicking. When I hit it, I couldn't see over the line, and I had to rely on the crowd to tell me if it was good. When they went nuts, I knew. No question—that's the highlight of my career.
—JOSH SCOBEE, Jaguars placekicker, who hit a 59-yard field goal (his career best by eight yards) as time expired to stun the Colts 31--28 in Week 4 and contribute to the dogfight in the AFC South this year. Scobee's was one of two 59-yarders so far this season; Denver's Matt Prater hit one in a 24--20 loss to the Jets in Week 6. There have been only 11 other field goals of 59 or more yards in NFL history.
The kicking game has ruined the Chargers. It's given the Chiefs and the Seahawks hope. A 68-yard run on a preposterous fake punt by Cleveland's Reggie Hodges helped lift the Browns to a shocking win at New Orleans. A disastrous performance in a 41--14 loss to the Patriots got Miami special teams coach John Bonamego fired, the first time in memory that a kicking-game coach was so scapegoated in midyear. The Redskins use 5'7", 150-pound rookie burner Brandon Banks to return punts and kicks; on Sunday, looking like a trick-or-treater dressed as an NFL player, Banks ran a kickoff back 96 yards against the Lions to briefly give Washington a fourth-quarter lead.
Two new rules enacted in the last two years, both related to player safety, have opened up the special teams game. To limit violent multiplayer collisions, kickoff teams no longer can use a four-player wedge to block for the return man; now that lead-blocking unit can be two players at most. And no longer can a player line up over the center on punts or placekicks to cave in an unprotected long snapper. This latter rule has created some blocking problems for linemen and also led to larger gaps in the middle of the field, such as the one that helped Hodges go up the gut against the Saints.
OCT. 24 CLEVELAND AT NEW ORLEANS
We've been working on this play since last year, and I give credit to the coaches for having the guts to call it. I'm back there buck naked, and I've got to present the ball like I'm punting before I take off. Hey, I would have taken nine yards—just enough for the first down. Sixty-eight, that's unbelievable. I just kept looking for one of their DBs to come up and tackle me. That's the kind of play that can change the climate of a game.
—REGGIE HODGES, whose fourth-and-eight fake broke open a seven-point game. Mediocre teams such as the Browns have to take chances against superior opponents. A fake punt with a 10--3 lead from your own 23-yard line is a pretty big chance.