Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Special Teams Special Again?

Special Teams Special Again?

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I was putting together a piece on the outlook for the special teams unit under new coach Danny Crossman. While I’m still collecting stats on Crossman for a more in-depth evaluation of the coach, I came across this great piece by Michael Schottey in regards to the Lions’ bolstering of the special teams units in their recent signings. One telling quote in there jumped out at me:

Kwan preached technique and responsibility over intensity. Run down the field in the prescribed lane and don’t run out of it—just don’t make a mistake. It is a low-risk, low-reward philosophy, similar to the philosophy used on returns and just about everything else from the Marinelli and Mooch eras.

Crossman, along with his boss, Jim Schwartz, preach a different kind of coverage—find the guy with the ball and knock the snot out of him. … … … Furthermore, the Crossman way of doing things would rather give up the occasional big return on a mistake than allow above-average returns on every single kickoff

What struck me about this – especially the last line – is that while Kwan under Mooch and Marinelli was a conservative plotter yet still gave up both a longer average return and big plays on a regular basis. Remember a couple years back all those images of a ball floating in Lake Michigan every time the Lions kicked away from Hester? Yet they still managed to give up a TD to him in that game on one of the two or three kicks he did field!

In looking back at Kwan’s tenure, a big weakness I see is for trying to pre-plan the un-plannable. He wanted to have a solid plan in place where each player did their specific duty, and that would predictably funnel the play to a certain spot, where a certain player would make a tackle. The problems with this were three-fold:

  1. Rotating Team: There was/has been a constant turnover of the bottom players on the roster. While even good teams have some movement due to injuries, the Lions have had significantly more roster movement both in and out of season than an average NFL team. At one point last year during camp, the Lions signed 5 people on waivers and released 5 – in one week. That is a lot of turnover in the special teams department. That makes it not only difficult, but near impossible, to have finesse special teams units as you have a constant flow of new players coming through constantly.
  2. Talent: Dating to even before the 0-16 season of 2008, the Lions were steadily bleeding talent. This was not only evident in the starters, but flowed through the entire roster. When over half of your starters are special teams players at best, that means your special teams players are…well…not as special as everyone else’s to be blunt about it.
  3. Scheme Weakness: Taking players who are already going up against guy with more talent, who have had longer to learn what their doing, and then putting them in a scheme that makes them think more about what where they are supposed to be than the ball-carrier leads to what we saw the last couple of years. When covering kicks or blocking for a returner, “tentative” is a word that should never appear. It is one aspect of the game that is always moving at 110% of light speed. Coupled with a meek return philosophy, they were constantly starting with poor field position on offense (no/short return) and even worse on defense (giving up a lot of big plays).

All in all, a combination of guys being in place but not making a play, or seeming to put half effort in because they just plain weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing made for high average returns against the Lions, as well as many huge plays. While things started to improve somewhat as the year progressed, Kwan just didn’t have that killer instinct instilled in special teams that Schwartz wanted to see.

Crossman brings a rep as an attack dog style special teams coach who had a down year. Rather than being chewed out for not “running to the right spot” when he crushes the opposing returner, players like Follett will be turned loose to decimate the other team. IF this transition and the players picked up in the ifseason and the 2009 and 2010 draft work out, then special teams may be special once again. IF…

Rating: 9.8/10 (5 votes cast)

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