Because clubs are always looking to save money at the bottoms of their rosters, special teams players are always turning over. That reduces cohesion in kick coverage, and it also opens up opportunities. A terrific crop of new runback specialists—seven of the top 10 kick returners at this season's midpoint are either rookies or new to their teams—has made the explosive return a part of the 2010 landscape. And Saints coach Sean Payton's gutsy call for an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl last February has emboldened coaches and players. "That was in the championship game of our sport," Jets safety and special-teamer Jim Leonhard said. "To some degree that was a tipping point. I think we're seeing more coaches say, 'Let's really go out and get that advantage on special teams.'"
"Seems like it's been a perfect storm this year," says longtime special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, now in his second coaching stint with Buffalo. "So many great young return guys, a couple of different rules and totally different emphasis with the salary cap. First time I was here [from 1987 to '99] guys like Steve Tasker, Mark Pike, Dwight Drane, Hal Garner—they stayed core players on special teams for six, seven years in a row. Last week the eight players on the front of our punt-return team were all different from the ones who were on the same unit last December. You can get three second-year guys for the cost of one good eight-year vet. That wasn't a very big deal when guys like Tasker played."
Last Friday, Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff stood at the grease board in his office illustrating the turnover in his units. He joked that general manager Mike Tannenbaum hated to come in his office last spring because Westhoff would give him an earful for signing another aging veteran—LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Mark Brunell—with no special teams value and forcing Westhoff to improvise by plugging in a newbie. "Teams basically have a tough time affording the middle class anymore," Westhoff said. "The top-heavy teams are constantly struggling to find special teams players."
OCT. 4 NEW ENGLAND AT MIAMI
Coming out for the second half, we knew we'd be getting the kickoff, and our coaches said, 'It's time to go out and make a play. But you have to be smart. Make smart decisions.' When they kicked it, I saw the hole and just hit it. I went to the house. We changed the game with one play.
—BRANDON TATE, whose 103-yard TD return sparked a 35-point second half for New England in its rout of the Dolphins. The Patriots are contending for another Super Bowl berth thanks in part to consistent special teams impact.
Which brings us to the AFC West. The underdog Chiefs have built up their middle class, focusing heavily on the kicking game. The Chargers, prohibitive favorites, let Osgood, their star special-teamer, walk in the off-season and then were wracked by injuries and mental mistakes. Matt Cassel has nearly 1,500 fewer passing yards than Rivers; the Chiefs are 12th in the league in offense and 16th in defense, while the Chargers lead the NFL in both categories. Yet Kansas City is 2½ games ahead of San Diego entering the second half of the season. There are lots of reasons for that, but none bigger than the kicking game.
While the Chargers lost Cromartie to the Jets and Osgood to the Jaguars, the Chiefs bulked up in the kicking game. General manager Scott Pioli badly wanted to upgrade team speed and special teams in the 2010 draft. With their two second-round picks the Chiefs took runner-receiver-returner Dexter McCluster from Mississippi and cornerback-returner Javier Arenas from Alabama. "Our special teams last year were slow," Pioli said. "Very slow. You lose games if you don't get that fixed."
You win them if you do. In Week 1 the Chiefs and the Chargers met on a rainy night in Kansas City, and McCluster took a punt back 94 yards for a score. The Chargers dominated the game, outgaining K.C. 389 yards to 197. Final score: Kansas City 21, San Diego 14.
It got worse for the Chargers when Leon Washington almost single-handedly beat them with 101- and 99-yard kick returns. Then came the debacle of debacles.