The best way to make an NFL team if you are a rookie or a first-year player, outside of quarterbacks, is playing on special teams. The more “teams” you can contribute on, the better your chances of being one of the last 4-5 guys to survive the last cut.
Special teams (kickoff coverage, punt coverage, kick return, punt return, field goal/PAT team, and FG/PAT “block” units) is the most underappreciated part of the game. Time is provided to “teams” work in camp, especially in two-a-days, but once the regular season starts, that time is usually cut to 10-15 minutes per two-hour practice each day.
If you get a chance to get out to Ravens training camp, watch special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg coach during the unit’s time on the field. No one usually notices when special teams does their job well, but when it breaks down on a long return given up or when a field goal is blocked, etc., it’s a much different story. Watch who he praises for doing a consistent job and circle their names. They might have a football job in Baltimore come September.
In an interview with Rosburg last summer for AtlantaFalcons.com, he described to me what makes a good special teams player. “There are a variety of roles. You can be a defensive lineman and be a fine special teams contributor even though you are in two phases – you fill a particular role at a particular time. It’s important, perhaps, to be the fullback on the kickoff return team, an inside rusher on the field goal block unit. You could be the third or fourth cornerback who plays in the nickel and the dime, but you are also the gunner on kickoff coverage and make 30-plus tackles a year. It could be a running back who is a returner or a third-down back if a team had that particular role. It could be the third or fourth wideout who could also be a gunner or the kickoff return specialist. It could be the linebacker who is playing on virtually every special teams unit who also gets in on nickel situations.”
For punt and kick coverage, it’s all about staying in your lane going down the field and “putting a hat on a hat” – finding your man to block or tackle the return man. On returns, it’s how you can get the opposing players out of their assigned lanes and create a hole to exploit. Those of you who sit in the end zones at M&T Bank Stadium get a great view of this each game. If you want to appreciate a very physical part of the game, watch the work of the “gunners” who grapple with blockers along the sidelines on punt and kickoff coverage. It’s truly fierce hand-to-hand combat.
On returns, every yard gained or lost is precious. On average, NFL teams returned punts for 9.1 yards and kickoffs for 22.6 yards last season. “We can affect field position by our coverage teams – keeping the opponent pinned into their own end as much as possible and not allowing big returns to give up field position and to help our defense play defense,” Rosburg said then. “It’s easier to play defense with 80 yards of green grass or turf at your back instead of 20 yards. On the other side, we are trying to set up our offense with scoring opportunities where we get the ball across the 50 – the odds of scoring go up greatly, so in our return game we are trying to do exactly that – change the field. The other thing we are trying to do, real frankly, is score. There are a variety of ways to do that. One of them is to score with your return team, another is getting a turnover and score by blocking a punt or stripping the ball loose – playing fundamentals.”
By the way, do you want your kid to be a long-term NFL player? Teach them how to long-snap. Here’s a great example. Kevin Houser of the Saints was selected out of Ohio State in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL Draft (228th overall). The ninth-year pro is a reliable long-snapper for punts and placekicks, and he also hustles down the field to make special teams tackles (36 through 2007). Houser has played in 128 games (never missed a contest) and has made, according to the NFL database compiled by USA Today, $4.06 million dollars in salary and bonuses over his eight seasons in the league. Not bad for a true special teams-only player in a league where the average career is slightly over three seasons in length.
“You tell those kinds of stories to everyone (about players who had long careers due to special teams play) and some guys listen better than others,” Rosburg said last summer. “Unfortunately, sometimes it’s directly related to their draft position or lack thereof. Those who are not drafted listen a little bit better. Those who are drafted a little higher have a tendency to think of themselves of guys who will not be playing special teams. They typically learn rather quickly.”
How did Ravens head coach John Harbaugh go from a longtime special teams coordinator to a head coach? One reason, among many, is that a special teams coach will work with the majority of the roster on both sides of the ball, more than even either the offensive or defensive coordinators do over the course of a season.
A special teams coach has to motivate each player to do well, regardless of where they are on the depth chart at their primary position, and teach strong fundaments in a limited amount of time in the classroom and on the field. They have to be very passionate about the work and keep the units ready when their time comes during each game. They also learn a lot about how individual players tick on and off the field. And, according to Rosburg, “you have to be organized and use every moment that you have and use it well. Not only do you have to be organized, but the players have to be as well and know exactly what you expect of them – where to be and when to be there and practice very efficiently. If you can manage the people and the time, your practices go better. And if your practices go better, you play better.”
Despite the esteem that special teams coaches are held in NFL coaching circles, the truth is that when owners come looking for head coaching prospects, their resumes are not usually at the top of the stack. Coaches talk about “the three phases of the game,” but owners tend to only see “both sides of the ball.” Harbaugh has bucked that trend by his hire, and maybe more special teams coaches – many of whom have coached other positions in addition – will get a chance in a copycat league if he is ultimately successful.
Thanks to Harbaugh’s ascent to the Ravens’ top job, the dirty work of special teams has become a little more glamorous for coaches and continues to be a strong foundation for players trying to get their foot in pro football’s door.