The voice of the 60-year-old coach was weary. Almost resigned. "Thirty-three years I've been doing this," San Diego special teams coach Steve Crosby said last Friday. "In this one year I've had more things go wrong than in all those other years combined. Guys doing things I've never seen before."
Crosby laughed a bitter laugh. "Disturbing," he said finally. "Just ... well, disturbing. I mean, we've missed blocks that Ray Charles could have made. And if you think those plays don't cost you games, you're not watching football now."
An NFL team might not lose four games in 10 years because of special teams. San Diego lost four games in the first six weeks of the 2010 season due to incompetence in the kicking game. The most infamous: Week 5 at Oakland. In the first five minutes the Chargers had two punts blocked—equal to the number that Crosby's punt teams allowed in his first eight years with San Diego, covering 579 punts.
In those eight years Crosby had one long snapper, David Binn. This year he's had five. (Binn, who'd been long snapping for San Diego since 1994, suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in Week 1.) Crosby's two best coverage guys from 2009, Kassim Osgood and Antonio Cromartie, left through free agency and a trade, respectively. Their replacements, Quinton Teal and Richard Goodman, were signed off the street. Placekicker Nate Kaeding slipped and tore his groin while attempting a fourth-quarter field goal that was blocked in a 20--17 Week 6 loss at St. Louis. In a 27--20 Week 3 loss to the Seahawks, San Diego missed four tackles on a single kickoff, one of two that Seattle returned for touchdowns in the second half. Just when Crosby thought he was getting a handle on his problems—boom! Another punt blocked, 89 seconds into the game against the Titans on Sunday. San Diego also botched an extra-point attempt, allowing Tennessee to stay in the game until the final minutes of a 33--25 San Diego win.
The Chargers, at the season's midpoint, have the top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense in football. Philip Rivers has 2,649 passing yards, more than any other quarterback in history through eight games. But San Diego, which many thought would be playing for the NFL title in February, is 3--5, done in by its not-so-special teams.
The next time you go for a beer when the punter jogs onto the field ... don't. This year there's a chance you'll miss the play of the game.
SEPT. 26 SAN DIEGO AT SEATTLE
We feel that whenever they kick the ball to me, it's going to be a touchdown. If we don't score, we're pissed. Against San Diego that's 14 points. Think about that. Most games in the NFL are decided by six points or less. You've got a chance to win a game with big plays like that.
—LEON WASHINGTON, Seattle kick returner, whose runbacks of 101 and 99 yards against the Chargers accounted for two of the Seahawks' three touchdowns. Seattle sits atop the NFC West in part because of strong play in the kicking game.
Mamas don't raise their babies to be special teams players. Callers don't call talk shows to rail about the punt team. Fans in April don't microanalyze draft prospects, wondering, Can this guy be a good gunner? When college players dream of the NFL, not one of them envisions being a wedge buster. No one talks about, thinks about or wrings his hands over special teams. Until it's too late. That would be now, in the Year of the Kicking Game.