by Joseph Mattern - 10/04/2005
Everybody knows how important an explosive offense or a stifling defense can be for a football team, and everyone can name the big stars on both sides of the ball Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson and Terrell Owens are household names and they make headlines every Sunday. But there is another, less heralded, often overlooked part of a football team that is very important: special teams. Studying special teams can become a valuable part of your handicapping strategy. The five categories of special teams are kickoff, kick return, punting, punt return and field goal teams and there are several factors that come into play with regard to studying them.
Field Position -- Winning and losing in the NFL is largely a matter of field position. Field position is determined in large part by special teams. Teams that win the battle of field position often win the game.
Kicker -- Placekickers and punters are the keys to special teams. If a team has a guy who can boom a punt from deep in his own territory, or a guy who is accurate in long field goal situations, that translates into better field position and points, respectively, and ultimately results in more victories.
Return Man -- A guy with great hands and blinding speed like the Chiefs' Dante Hall is a game changer capable of scoring anytime he touches the ball, and by virtue of that, he really ups the value of a team's kickoff and punt return units.
Speed Kills -- The old football cliché is especially true for special teams. Kick coverage demands that players get down the field in a hurry and put a hat on somebody. Otherwise, the other team can pick up extra yards for free, get better field position and score more easily.
Tacklers -- Speed is great. In fact, it is necessary. But without good tacklers on special teams, it doesn't mean a whole lot. You need coverage guys who can break down quickly and wrap guys up in the open field.
Long Snappers -- Here's a position that you don't hear too much about unless something goes wrong, as happened to the NY Giants a couple years ago against the 49ers.
Crazies -- You always want to have a few guys who have no regard for their bodies and are willing to sacrifice themselves by flying full speed all over the field, breaking the wedge, and generally creating havoc.
Smarts -- It's not enough to have speed, good tacklers, and craziness. The players also need to be smart. Things like knowing when to let the ball go, when to fair-catch and not getting plays called back with careless penalties can make a huge difference in a game.
Special teams are often populated by third and fourth receivers, rookies, and guys who otherwise might not play, so it helps sometimes to follow college football, and notice guys, say in the defensive secondary, who are fast and are big hitters. If they were studs in college, and catch on with an NFL team, they can help to improve the special teams. A good example of this is Carolina Panthers' rookie Thomas Davis, who was awesome in college at the University of Georgia and really strengthens Carolina's special teams coverage units.
With other factors being equal, the team with the better special teams play has a huge advantage. Good special teams can keep a team in a game against an otherwise superior team, and that makes a closer look at underdogs with good units an interesting proposition. For favorites, a dominant squad can really open the floodgates and keep the other team in the hole as far as field position goes.
Special teams are just that: special. It's hard to overstate their importance. Remember when you are doing your homework on NFL teams not to neglect special teams because they can and often do make the difference in outcomes.