Friday, June 20, 2008

MUP- Most Undervalued Positions

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!

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

To quote Tom Cruise in "The Firm"..."It ain't sexy, but it's got teeth"...

KCLion Fan

Ethan said...

I think this is the most interesting article about kickers, ever. Great post!

One thing that kind of amazed me... The yahoos on Yahoo! recently voted on fantasy position players, and kickers were on the list. They voted top 15, and not a single one of them picked Hanson in the top 15.

http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy/nfl/news?slug=ys-expertpoll-08preseason-k

Maybe it has to do with how fantasy numbers work, or maybe they just forgot about Hanson because he's on the Lions.

Regardless, I'll take our kickers any day; they are fine. Hanson might not be a Vinatieri, but I don't think Vinatieri would be Vinatieri if he were on the Lions, if you catch my meaning. Lack of having to kick meaningful FGs in regards to playoffs, etc.

Isphet said...

oops that last comment was from me, Isphet

DetFan1979 said...

I've had Jason Hanson two years in a row in Fantasy Play, and he is consistently a top 5 kicker points wise -- especially in leagues that reward longer kicks as lots of his kicks are 40+ yards, and quite a few 50+. Those people must not know a whole lot if hanson isn't a top choice -- fantasy or reality.

Not only is he one of the top kickers in the league, but he is a great locker-room influence, role model, and team leader. How often is the kicker voted ST captain, as Hanson was last year?

LOL - that's okay. I went to send an email the other day, and thought I'd lost all my contacts...until I realized I was logged into my "spam mail" account (the address I put in places I know are just going to spam me to death), not DetFan1979.

DetFan1979 said...

BTW - thanks for the compliment! Apparently those 4 days off were good for me! Don't worry folks -- just a lot of stuff on the home front keeping me hopping.

Like the energizer bunny, still going...and going...and going...

jreffy said...

As a former longsnapper in both gradeschool and high school, I can only agree on how important a position it is.

No one ever knows who the longsnapper is until he messed up. And it always seems that you'll never snap a ball over the Punter's head until you're backed up into your own endzone. I know that one from firsthand experience, lol.

Anonymous said...

Good trip. Muhlbach is defunately one of the better long snappers in the game, that is also a reason Priefer went and got him a few years back.

Kicker-definately the loneliest player in teh football world.

No one talks to you because they don't want to jinx you. If you make a kick, they can't do more than tap your helmet because you have that cheesy "Garo Yepremian" solo cross-bar helmet. Then, if you miss, you have the Boubonic Plague. The only thing worse than icing the kicker, is being iced by his own teammates.

-nubs

Deano the Great said...

Good post. As always, I enjoy your writing and insight. Your wife and kids should be glad to know if the insurance business fails, you can always start publishing!

Of the three positions you mentioned, I think the long snapper is the most undervalued. This has to be mostly in part because they are only noticed when things go wrong and when they go wrong, well, you know what usually happens. The kickers are usually loved and are mentioned fairly often in posts, articles, etc. Punters not quite as much although TV commentators make mention often. I would rank them as long snapper as the most undervalued, punter second, and kicker third.

While we are (sort of) on the topic of special teams, I would have to say the whole special teams unit can be undervalued. This was brought to light to me after last year's horrible showing by my Lions. I have had to grit my teeth many times over the years watching the Lions but that special teams unit (other than the 3 positions mentioned, interestingly enough) was just awful and I think we could have won a few more games if their production had been up to snuff.

Lastly, since this is the time of year I hate the most, with the least amount of Lions information coming out of the media, how about an article on the most undervalued/underappreciated support staff, i.e. strength and conditioning coach, trainer, water boy, jock strap washer, etc. I have always felt the Lions received more than their fair share of injuries over the years and often wonder if all fans think that way about their team or if there are conditioning issues for the Lions, or it's because of the cold weather here, or there is a conspiracy afoot, or...

Anonymous said...

deano the great

Yeah, outside of long snappers and the leather booters, the Lions special teams play last year was average and mundane on returns. But the coverage teams played poorly enough that I thought Stan Kwan was going to get axed as fast as a turkey on the Butterball farm in the week before Thanksgiving. Maybe he was a "Timmy Turkey"???

The injury thing is cyclical, and it hits some teams harder than others some years.

If you remember a few years ago, the Lions had that rash of hamstring injuries in the wide receiver corps. I think that is definately an eye opener to the strength and conditioning guys.

There are injuries that plague "domed" teams moreso than grass teams.

Over the past couple of years, we've had the two Lisfranc Warriors? Were Teddy and Kevin dome injuries??? How about the Shaun Rogers/Shawn Cody turf toes? God, it even has the name "turf" in the injury description.

Other than that, these guys go through some grueling training and everything has its purpose. What I look at (usually a good indicator) is watch who gets injured early in camp. Three reasons that happens. 1. Poor training before camp. 2. Not committed to training during camp. 3. Bad luck. With one an two, they usually get injured againt later in the year.

Look at Shaun Rogers' good years and bad years. Look when he went on I.R. Last year, couldn't jog during camp. Last half of the season, played hurt and played horrible.

-nubsnobber

CHIEFGER139 said...

truth is
our kickers are probably the best stars on our entire team-probably our best shot at a probowl spot unless cj can finally live up to his hype or roy can bust loose after a injury on a contract year-too bad stan kwans guys are so weak and harris has to kick it out of bounce-thats are only chance of getting them on the 5 yard line is with harris-poor hanson still has to kick it out of bounce because the 35 yd line is better than giving up td's

CanOpener said...

I would say the MUP is a special teams player that Can tackle. Who do the Lions have that will surprise anyone as far as covering kickoffs, and our return game, I don't even want to go there.

Our kicking game is one of the positions that bother me the least.
Hanson is just fine in my book but, how much longer will he be around?

There are three things I want to see improved before I get excited about Lions football again, #1, I want to see a pass rush, #2, I would like to see our special teams tackle well, #3, get a good running back and run the football.

detfan1979, I got a chuckle out of your spam mail blog and I'll tell you why, we Lions fans keep looking for a meat and potatoes team with real meat like ham but, we keep getting spam, imitation football.

Sorry for being so negative about this upcoming season, I cant help myself.

Maybe next year, ;) CanOpener59

ps, I was banned from mlive but good or bad I'll call it the way I see it. Another bad draft.

Anonymous said...

79'

I'm tired of all the drivel put out by MLive in their so-called scouting reports, and the even less intelligent responses from the peanut gallery....

Would you be kind enough to put out an assessment of the Lions vs. other teams that are in that 9-7 or 10-6 capable area?

I'm thinking about how the Lions stack up against teams like the Saints, Panthers, maybe the Browns, and even the Vikings...

It may make for better reading than scouting reports of 5th WRs....


KCLion Fan

CHIEFGER139 said...

kc lion fan
i think were capabable of beating everyone on the schedule with the only doubtful wins being jacksonville,indy and gb away-all others are even up games within a 4 point spread either way or we should be favored.