NFL Handicapping: Don't Sleep on Special Teams
by Zack Cimini - 8/23/2013
Handicapping an NFL game is completely different from college football. The old saying that people win on Saturday and give it all back Sunday is more matter of fact than people think. Analyzing every angle – in detail – in the NFL is a necessity because the differences from position to position do not vary as much between the pro and college games.
In the college game, a team can dismantle a point spread or the total score with just a couple facets of the game such as a great running game or a savvy quarterback. But in the NFL, the level of talent across the board is so drastically different that there are many other nuances to watch.
For example, the special teams unit may be on the field for only 12 to 15 plays each game. However, in the NFL it may have an under-calculated value during the most crucial moments of a game. And these are moments that may have an effect on sports books and point spreads.
Are you the type of fan that stays glued to your television in red zone situations and then breathes a sigh of relief when the defense holds to a field goal?
If it’s you, then seconds later your deep exhale may turn into a loud yell when the special teams unit gives up a touchdown in less than 20 seconds or allows the opposing team to get great field position past mid-field. And then you’re right back on the edge of your seat.
The same can be said when it comes to punt returns. In the 1990s, players like Brian Mitchell, Eric Metcalf, Deion Sanders and Jermaine Lewis were feared, but teams would still punt to them. Things did not really change until Devin Hester came onto the scene in 2006. Hester’s explosiveness in the open field took the NFL by storm – he had 11 TDs (12, if you count the Super Bowl) in a two-year span.
His impact on the outcome of any single game forced teams across the league to change their approach to how they kicked to Hester. It must have worked, because during the next five years he had only five TDs on special teams. However, while his touchdowns were reduced, it didn’t stop the threat of electrifying returns league-wide. Now, almost every team has a threat on special teams, and coaching staffs have developed specific plans on how to kick to nearly every punt returner in the league.
Things like this are not highly talked about in the media because punters aren’t, for the most part, considered newsworthy. But more teams continue to swap out their punters frequently to gain a pivotal edge. As a result, the truculent business of the NFL has no shame in replacing a punter. From 2012 to 2013, the punter position will have seven new starters.
A deeper look explains why: Consider hang time and pinning the opponent inside the 20- or 10-yard line.
Last year, only two players had multiple punt returns for touchdowns. As more teams become wary of dangerous punt and kickoff returns, special teams coaches are stressing the importance of playing gap positions. And there’s a greater emphasis on situational special teams players on every team’s roster.
Quality punters have also increased in demand. The Top-5 punters last year far outpaced the rest of their colleagues in pinning opponents inside the 20- and 10-yard lines. Among that elite group, only the Arizona Cardinals’ Dave Zastudil had a statistically abnormal number of punt attempts (112). So the disparity from top to bottom among punters might actually be one of the biggest statistical gaps in the entire NFL.
Dustin Colquitt of the Kansas City Chiefs proved to be the top punter last season – on a very bad team. Sixty five of his 83 punts landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line as compared to only seven touchbacks. That is an astounding percentage – close to 80 percent. Not surprisingly, two of the league’s top defenses benefitted from having punters that excelled in this area. Seattle’s Jon Ryan had 44 of his 65 punts (68 percent average) land in that promised land, and the 49ers’ Andy Lee scored 48 of his 67 punts (71 percent) in the same hallowed ground.
This type of field position changes the complexity of game plans – and the coaches know this. They might be forced into taking a safe approach for the series – and possibly the next – to dig themselves out of terrible field position. This results in shorter possession time and exposes the team’s defense because they’ll be less well-rested. Because of this, opposing offenses benefit – teams can gain as much as 20 yards per series when starting their next drive.
After the Top-10 punters, the average sinks below 50 percent punts pinned inside the 20-yard line.
Dustin Colquitt was the top punter in 2012, but played on a poor team. So let’s look at Seattle to see how Ryan affected offenses that were playing on his home turf.
One of the toughest places to play is Seattle, which is tabbed by the home crowd as “The 12th Man”. Seattle’s Monday night victory over Green Bay was spotlighted by an incorrect call by replacement officials, but there was another glaring reason to why they managed to stay in the football game for so long.
Jon Ryan had three magnificent punts that put the Packers in poor offensive field position – three inside the Packers’ 12-yard line, including one downed at the one-yard line and another at the five-yard line.
Green Bay actually moved the football fairly well considering the distance they had to go but only mustered three points out of the three drives.
In another game, a low-scoring affair between Seattle at San Francisco last season, the 49ers won, 13-6. Of the 49ers’ five punts, Andy Lee pinned four inside the 20, while Ryan was only able to do so on one of his four. In a close-contested game at home, Lee was able to win that battle by a wide margin.
There are advantages to find in all games. Sometimes, it might just be the punter. So do not overlook the value of special teams when you’re breaking down the point spread or total. Right now, there are only eight to 10 punters that are exceptional. This number should increase over the next few seasons, which will make the punter even more of a barometer and factor on point spread/total analysis.
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