'Crazy' aces for special teams
'Gunners' and 'wedge busters,' these players are more than interchangeable parts
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They met right in the middle of paradise in 2008, an accomplished special teams star from San Diego and an unheralded backup fullback from Jacksonville searching for a niche in the NFL.
Kassim Osgood, the AFC's Pro Bowl special teams player that year, had never heard of Montell Owens. But Osgood respected Owens' ambition. As soon as they bumped into each other during Pro Bowl week in Honolulu, Owens peppered Osgood with questions about how to stick in the league as a kicking game specialist.
What Osgood liked most about the guy was his tenacity. Though Owens had come to Hawaii as a guest of former Jaguars running back and Pro Bowl selection Fred Taylor, he wasn't just relaxing by the pool. He wanted every last bit of knowledge Osgood could offer, whether it was secrets to blocking schemes or tips on tackling.
"You could tell that he wanted to take his game to the next level," Osgood said. "And he actually reminded me of myself in that way. I don't usually get those questions. Most of the time, I have people coming up to me and saying, 'Why do you do what you do? You must be crazy.'"
Insane actually is just one way to describe special teams standouts like Osgood, who became Owens' teammate after signing a free-agent deal with the Jaguars in March. You can also use words like "intense," "resilient" and "passionate" when discussing a group of largely unheralded athletes that includes men like Minnesota's Heath Farwell, Baltimore's Brendon Ayanbadejo and Tampa Bay's Niko Koutouvides.
The players who excel at these roles would agree that an amalgam of those qualities is vital to their success. They'd also be quick to acknowledge that more people than ever are recognizing their value. These players aren't kickers or punters or the kind of electric return men who excite fans as soon as they touch the football. Instead, they're the blue-collar lugs who do a ton of dirty work to keep their careers going as long as possible.
After all, it's players like Osgood who are chasing down a slew of slippery returners who've suddenly invaded the league. They're also the ones who please general managers with the kind of versatility that equates to more bang for the buck. Add in the fact such players provide valuable depth on offense or defense -- and that their vibrant personalities can uplift an entire roster -- and you get the idea.
Despite going largely unnoticed, the best special teams players are vital to any team's foundation, largely because of their attitudes. As Vikings special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said, "How many guys come into this league aspiring to be gunners?"
'Ultimate team players'
"It really takes a special guy to be good at this," said Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April. "Because most of the players who do it haven't known the benefits of it or been rewarded for it. They didn't get a scholarship in college for playing on special teams. They didn't get drafted because of it. And once they are doing it on this level, they're making plays that few people notice and at a lower salary rate than most. So the guys who do it well really are the ultimate team players."
That's exactly how Osgood made his name. When the Chargers didn't re-sign him during the offseason -- primarily because he wanted more opportunities as a receiver after catching 33 passes in his first seven seasons -- the Jaguars jumped at the chance to offer him a reported three-year, $6.675 million deal. Jaguars special teams coordinator Russ Purnell was so giddy after hearing that Osgood was flying in for a visit that Purnell offered to pick him up at the airport. It didn't matter that Purnell was enjoying a day at the beach with his wife upon hearing about Osgood's flight. He had no desire to lose out on a player who'd made three Pro Bowls in the last four years for his special teams play.
Osgood's impact has been immediate. The combination of him and Owens has helped transform the Jaguars' once mediocre return units into a group that boasts a kick returner (Tiquan Underwood) with a 24.5-yard average. In contrast, the Chargers felt Osgood's absence as soon as this season started. Their 21-14 loss to Kansas City in Week 1 included a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown by Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster and a 36-yard punt return by Javier Arenas, another first-year player.
Of course, Osgood isn't the only player responsible for the success or failure of the special teams units. However, his presence helps raise the standards of those around him.
"Most of these guys are only playing 25 plays a game but those are critical plays," April said. "There is a lot of focus and explosiveness happening during those moments."
Added Owens, who was the AFC's Pro Bowl alternate behind Osgood last season: "Things might be different in college but you can literally change games on special teams at this level. It really is that important."
Once ninth on depth chart, now invaluable
That significance can be measured in various ways on special teams, from less familiar statistics like hidden yardage (which is tabulated from gains and losses in field position in the kicking game) to more obvious ones like kick and punt return yardage. When Ayanbadejo was a Pro Bowl player with Chicago in 2006-07, he saw first-hand what dominant special teams play could do. With the help of Ayanbadejo's inspired blocking, Devin Hester became such an intimidating returner that teams like Minnesota often kicked the ball out of bounds -- giving the Bears the ball at their 40-yard line -- to avoid him.
The tone such players can set with their energy also can't be overlooked. When recently retired receiver Sean Morey joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in August 2004, he hardly had any teammates embrace him until a Week 2 loss to Baltimore. That's when the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Morey spent most of that game blocking 6-2, 270-pound linebacker Adalius Thomas on kickoff returns. When Thomas decked Morey on the last return of the game, Morey bolted up and chased Thomas down to deliver one final blow. That play didn't get overlooked in the Steelers' film session the next day, when star receiver Hines Ward watched it and yelled, "I see you, Morey."
Osgood, woman attacked
Jaguars WR and special teams star Kassim Osgood escaped a gun-wielding man who attacked him and a 19-year-old woman. Story
Special teams aces earn such respect because of their hardened paths to the league. No team drafted Osgood or Farwell -- last year's NFC special teams Pro Bowl representative -- after their careers at San Diego State. The same was true of Owens, who actually was so obscure after leaving Maine that he was listed ninth on the Jaguars' running backs depth chart during his first training camp in 2006. As for Ayanbadejo, he spent four years in the Canadian Football League before becoming a three-time Pro Bowl player in the NFL.
These are the kinds of players who usually vanish from the league before anybody ever notices their presence. Their endurance primarily on special teams play speaks to their career survival instincts and willingness to throw themselves into their work.
Ayanbadejo said the job "starts with a player having a great motor" but Morey added that such specialists need a certain edge as well.
"You have to love the physicality of the game and have a deep loyalty to your teammates," said Morey, who played for four teams in nine seasons. "I used to love the fact that a lot of my teammates didn't want to do my job. I knew that self-preservation was an afterthought for a special teams player but I was happy as long as I was appreciated."
"The biggest thing about these guys is they embrace their roles," Purnell said. "They know where they stand in the pecking order and they all have great instincts. They might run downfield and have no idea where the ball is going to go but they never give up. They have that want-to. And if you look at Kassim, he's had that ever since he came into the league."
In the footsteps of Tasker, Bates and Izzo
The 6-5, 220-pound Osgood actually fell into this niche the old-fashioned way: He received an ultimatum.
Though he had 108 receptions during his senior season at San Diego State in 2002, a broken left hand crippled his chances of making the Chargers' roster as a rookie. So then-coach Marty Schottenheimer pulled Osgood aside and broke things down for him. Either Osgood started to make a name for himself on special teams or he'd be looking for work elsewhere.
Before long, Osgood was earning game balls for his efforts as a gunner on punt coverage, a blocker on the return units and a consistent tackler on the kickoff teams. His confidence also blossomed even though he hardly played on offense.
"You could see that I was a rookie when I was on offense," Osgood said. "But when I was on special teams, you could see that I knew what I was doing."
I remember thinking that I had to play well to keep from going back to the bench. I haven't been deactivated since.” -- Vikings LB Heath Farwell, on how he earned a regular job in the NFL as a special teams performer
He also set an example for other players to follow. When Farwell came by a Chargers game midway through Osgood's rookie year, Osgood encouraged his former college roommate to believe he could do the same things in the league. It helped that Farwell, a linebacker by trade, already was thinking along the same lines.
Once Farwell joined the Vikings, he realized the speed of the game on special teams didn't intimidate him. He also caught the eye of former Vikings coach Mike Tice early on as a rookie in 2005. With Minnesota struggling on special teams, Tice activated Farwell from the practice squad in Week 5 in order to boost the unit's play.
"I remember thinking that I had to play well to keep from going back to the bench," Farwell said. "I haven't been deactivated since."
Farwell thrived mainly because he wanted to be on special teams. He'd enjoyed it in high school and college and he realized that some players on the pro level seemed more focused on finding starting jobs on offense or defense. Like many of today's top special teams stars, he also had a feel for the game. He could recognize blocking schemes quickly and make split-second decisions at top speed that kept him around the ball.
"The best guys in this role can anticipate the flow of the game, leverage and what it takes to be in the right place," the Vikings' Murphy said. "Special teams happen in a lot of space and that can intimidate some guys. The ones who excel at it know how to handle that part of the game."
'We're fighting for jobs every day of our lives'
The inability to find players who can fill those roles can have equally devastating consequences.
There are so many dangerous returners in today's NFL -- a list that includes Hester and other burners like Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson and Seattle's Leon Washington -- that, as Farwell says, "it makes the jobs of guys like me even more important."
That belief doesn't apply merely on the field, either. The leadership of special teams players off the field is just as important.
When Morey came into the league in 1999, he thought a stellar career at Brown would lead to him becoming the next Steve Largent or Wayne Chrebet. After learning that he had to play special teams to survive, he spent long hours watching tape of Tasker and other top specialists to understand the job. Morey would even buy dinner for the team's video staff because he appreciated their extra work for him. That desire kept Morey in the NFL much longer than many people ever thought he would last.
In Jacksonville, Purnell raves about the fact Osgood sits in the front of special teams meetings so younger teammates can see how he prepares for game days. Meanwhile, Owens takes up a spot in the back of the room where he can make sure nobody is falling asleep and also keep an eye out for players who might need extra tutoring on that week's game plan. Because both Osgood and Owens compete on all the special teams units, it's vital that they set a standard for fellow Jaguars to follow.
Their flexibility also makes life easier on Jaguars general manager Gene Smith, who concedes more teams are looking for athletes who can seamlessly fill various roles in the kicking game. The main reason? They cost far less and willingly do much more for the team.
"Their versatility gives them more value," Smith said. "The thing about special teams today is that it has become a lot more specialized. And if you're not a returner, then you need to do other things."
Smith added that those "other things" include having the ability to fill in on offense or defense if necessary. The league has seen a few big-name players who've gone from being effective special teams players to being invaluable starters -- including New York Jets outside linebacker Bart Scott and Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison -- and Osgood is trying to prove he can do the same.
Though he has struggled with inconsistent hands thus far, he did have a game-winning, 24-yard touchdown grab in Jacksonville's season-opening victory over Denver.
"It had been so long since I'd scored a touchdown (2004) that I didn't even celebrate, " he said. "I didn't have anything planned."
Because Osgood is the Jaguars' fourth receiver, it's hard to know exactly when such an opportunity will arise again. What is far more predictable is the likelihood that he'll continue to find more players around the league who appreciate his contributions.
In fact, it's quite common for special teams studs to find each other after games to congratulate one another in the same way quarterbacks and head coaches do. As Morey said, "Even though your teammates know you, you feel like that one guy on the other team really knows what you've been through to get here. We all know we can be replaced at any time and that we're fighting for jobs every day of our lives."
That happened to be the same message Osgood tried to impart to Owens during their talk in Hawaii
"He told me to always stay hungry," Owens said. "Because that's what he did. He's now going into his eighth year and we both have the same mentality. We think that wins and losses aren't decided by X's and O's. Ultimately, it comes down to your attitude."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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