It seems that when we focus on the most valuable positions, it is those that pundits agree are the "most influential" to a team. We always hear about the QB, or the RB, or the star WR on offense -- we also hear about the star CB, hard-hitting S and LB, or sack-racking DE. We also hear about "building the Lines" - Offensive and Defensive - and even occasionally single out an exceptional lineman like an Ogden.
Stars at pretty much every position are valued, and talked about as "the backbone of this offense/defense". However, as I was reading this article about Jason Hanson on the Detroit Lions' website, I was distinctly reminded of what I consider the 3 most under-valued positions on a football team: Kicker, Punter, Long Snapper -- the backbone of Special Teams.
Most of football is a pure team sport -- you can be Barry Sanders, but if your O-Linemen don't block, you'll look great getting back to the line of scrimmage. No line and/or Run game, and we all know how a QB can get the crap kicked out of him. As well, you can have an exceptional QB, but if the WR doesn't catch the ball, it's wasted. Same with elite WR and no QB. They can't throw it to themselves.
Special Teams is a "unit" that is often known more for its KR/PR than anything else. When a ST unit either allows or gets TD's they get a lot of hate/fanfare, and then are quickly forgotten. However, as far as plays go, ST plays are a huge percentage of your average game. They are responsible for putting both the offense and defense in either good - or bad - situations. Winning the field position battle is essential for victory in the NFL, and while the offense and defense must do their part, it is up to the ST unit to either keep momentum going, or turn the tide.
What is the use of the Defense holding the opposing O to a 3-and-out when the return units are so bad that the team offense starts on the 5 yard line. Same for setting up the defense -- whether it is kickoffs, or punts -- the coverage units are essential for holding the opposing team back. What use is punting the ball 45 yards, if the opposing team returns it 35? 45? 50?? Might just as well go for it every 4th down.
I know, I know -- all this is old hat. But while a PR/KR is great for the return teams, what about the rest of the special teams plays? They rest in large part on three positions: Kicker, Punter, Long Snapper.
Now, I will up-front acknowledge that, like the rest of the game, kicking and punting is a team activity. I'm also not saying their overall role is like that of a QB, or any other key player who is on a majority of snaps on either side of the ball. However, there is more of a loner element to this than any other part of the sport. Their performance also impacts the ENTIRE offense AND defense.
A great kicker can turn "failed" drives into points -- game winning points. They keep opponents starting on their 20 yard line, or worse. If your kicker isn't on his game...then you end up with empty drives, and your defense trying to protect a shortened field against a pumped-up offense.
Punters, too, impact the fortunes of both the defense and the offense. The O just went three and out, or stalled short of FG range. In comes the punter. Depressing, or invigorating for the D? Depends on the P and coverage units. Now, no matter how good or bad your coverage unit is, it all rests on how far and how well the Punter can place the ball. Pinned on the 5-10 yard line with a punt the spins low, fast, and bounces right out of bounds perfectly? One that skitters 15 yards to be downed at the one? How about a punt that is high and short, doesn't allow the blockers time to get to the returner, and leads to a short, or negative, net.
I included the long snapper because if a position is so important that you only notice it when they screw up -- and that the slightest mistake is noticed by everyone, yet is seldom talked about or mentioned without a yawn, that to me is an undervalued position. Snap too low? Too high? Nowhere freakin close? No matter how good your holder, kicker, punter... a bad long snap will lead to more muffed plays, turnovers, missed/blocked kicks and punts than anything else. When done right, it lets the kicker/punter do their job. When done poorly, it is devastating to the whole game. Yet, many teams rotate players at this position, and many pay dearly for it.
Another thing I find interesting is that lack of regard for the kicking team positions stretches even worse into the college ranks -- which makes the position even dicier at the pro level. Many teams go with the best walk-on at kicker. No scholarship, no recruiting, no anything. Even a majority of the top programs.
A powerful kicking/punting tandem can keep teams in the game, and even strike fear into opposing offenses. When teams know your guy pegs it in 75% of the time form 50 yards out, it adds a sense of urgency -- and sometimes, haste and mistakes -- as teams approach scoring range. A skilled kicking team extends that "scoring range" -- giving the offense a shorter field to work with to at least put some points on the board. great punters, by the same token, can keep an opposing offense pinned back near their end zone no matter how poorly the offense played. Great punting kept the Lions in a lot of games last year, and even helped mask some of the coverage unit deficiencies early in the season.
Detroit has also been extremely lucky where its' kickers are concerned. Two of the all-time greats have been lifetime lions -- Murray, and then Hanson. fully 2/3 of the teams in the league would drop their kicker in a heartbeat to pick-up Hanson if the Lions were to cut him today. Harris is an excellent punter, and would also have no lack of teams calling. Even the Lions LS is tops at his position -- in the top 5 in the league.
Kicker, especially, is a very lonely position. There is no lineman to open a running lane to freedom - the air is clear, your aim must be true. There is no WR to adjust to the throw - the uprights won't adjust to your kick, the line-markers to your punt. You and the ball -- succeed or fail. As individual as pressure and performance in football gets.
So hears to the often undervalued, under appreciated, and little talked about -- unless they miss, of course.
Agree? Disagree? What do you think the most undervalued position/player on the Lions is? In general? Let the discussion begin!