Opponents need aggressive strategies

The "Don't kick to Dante Hall?" theory sounds good, but is not the best approach to containing the phenomenal returner.

Updated: October 12, 2003, 10:40 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

What, do you think special teams coaches are stupid? Trust me, they're not.

Dante Hall of the Chiefs keeps returning kickoffs or punts for touchdowns. He has seven returns for scores in his past 10 games, an unprecedented NFL streak. He has four returns for touchdowns in the past four games, putting him on his own planet as far as a returner. In five weeks, Hall has already equaled the season record for return touchdowns (four).

Dante Hall
Hall
Understandably, all week the talk has been "Don't kick to Dante Hall?" While that strategy is obviously as sound as a pitcher walking Barry Bonds, it's not completely based in realism. How does Barry Bond hit more than 70 home runs if he's getting intentional walks? Eventually, great players get their at bats. However, it's not that simple in a football game to make every kick either go out of bounds or away from Hall.

Regardless, Hall is going to get his at-bats. And give special teams coaches more credit than coming up with such a simplistic notion than they can just "keep the ball away from Hall."

In many ways, the easier task is on kickoffs. There are more options to try to defend Hall. The simplest solution is kicking low, bouncing line drives that might not reach him. To do that requires major field position concessions. One of the wedge blockers might have some speed and bring the ball past the 40, but at least Hall isn't lighting up the scoreboard.

Expect more kickers preparing for Hall to spend more practice time doing that to see if they can develop a special skill in being able to avoid the blockers. In fact, special teams coaches may start rating kickers on their squib kicking ability. Hall is that good, so he may cause a wave of squib kicker ratings among the kickers. Special teams coaches chart and study everything.

What needs to be evaluated is what the Broncos did last week to Hall. Often, they tried to control him on punts and kickoffs with great hangtimes, allowing their defenders to swarm to him. Seeing Hall burn the Broncos for a touchdown, that concept might have to be pushed toward the rear.

If Hall gets the ball, he's going to find a way to burn an opponent. Even better than most great returners, Hall has a remarkable way of bouncing off the first contact and keeping his feet. Folks tend to forget he was a running back, and in these situations, he's a quick running back operating in the open field.

His 41-yard kickoff return against the Broncos in the fourth quarter was a classic example of the "Great Hangtime" Theory. The Broncos angled their kickoff to the left, hoping to trap Hall along the sidelines. Hall bounced off some tacklers and scooted through a small sliver of coverage to the 50 yardline at a blink of the eye.

Advise: Hangtime might as well bring the Hangman for the special teams coach. Hall is too elusive and it can't be forgotten he has been returning with a unit that has had only two changes since last year.

One thing not previously mentioned was kicking the ball out of the end zone. Not many teams have kickers with 80-yard legs. There have been 717 kickoffs this season. Only 47 have been touchbacks. And that's while the weather is good. As the weather chills, the balls harden. Only a couple of kickers and maybe a kickoff specialist or two can boom an 80-yarder in 32-degree weather. And if the kicker tries and fails, Hall gets the ball at the goal line with limited hangtime.

Forget about it.

Another dangerous notion is simply angling kickoffs to the sideline with the idea of giving Hall no chance of returning them. Give me a break. If it's hard for a kicker to move a ball from his 30 to the Chiefs 5-yard line kicking straight ahead, imagine how difficult it is kicking to the sidelines. You're adding yards. If kickers could consistently place a high, well-hung kick to the 5, he'd have the leg to boom it out of the end zone.

Special teams coaches aren't dumb. They actually watch these guys kickoff in practice every day. If they had that kind of leg, they'd use it to take the easy approach and kick it to the back of the end zone.

The other problem with the directional kickoff is if the ball goes out of bounds, the Chiefs get the ball at their 40. They now have a 35 percent chance of scoring. They need three first downs to get in field goal range and have a pretty good chance of scoring a touchdown. The Chiefs rank second in scoring and their average start is on the 36.7 yardline. Give them the ball at the 40 after kickoffs and their scoring will accelerate.

Another dangerous notion is simply angling kickoffs to the sideline with the idea of giving Hall no chance of returning them. Give me a break. If it's hard for a kicker to move a ball from his 30 to the Chiefs 5-yard line kicking straight ahead, imagine how difficult it is kicking to the sidelines.

Of course, the Chiefs control the number of times Hall is on kickoff returns. If the Chiefs don't allow scores, they get to use their kickoff return team. Hall has only been on the field for 19 kickoffs because the Chiefs defense is improved. Under this scenario, the Chiefs are actually helping teams defend Hall.

The most coaching over the next several weeks in regards to Hall will be on punt returns. That's where some education has to thwart the simple notion of punting the ball out of bounds every time.

Folks, directional punting is tough, and the Chiefs know that. To make a directional punt, the punter needs an extra step in what is called his "walkdown." That step requires extra protection, and the Chiefs know that, too. The flanks of a punter are protected by wingmen. If the Chiefs rush the wingmen hard -- and they do -- it's hard to buy that extra half second.

Chances of a blocked kick increase. If the Chiefs sense a directional kick coming, they can enhance their outside rush. Because Hall has been in the limelight since last December, special teams coaches have been studying their punt returns until the wee hours of the night.

The Chiefs have Frank Gansz Jr., son of one of the greatest special teams coaches in NFL history. Gansz has the Chiefs working more on directional kick returns more than straight ahead punts because he anticipates seeing more, and it makes Hall and his seasoned blockers better at those type of returns.

Lost in the Dante Hall equation is how good Gansz Jr. is as a special teams coach, and he has the full support of personnel from Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil, one of the league's first special teams coaches.

Directional kickers have become an aging breed. Jeff Gossett is a good one. Mark Royals has a long history of good directional kicking. Many of the punters in their 30s have the ability to do it occasionally, but it seems as though the blocking for directional kicks ended when Jeff Gossett retired from the Raiders.

It worked well for Gossett because the Raiders didn't spread their blockers like teams have done now to slow down the outside punt rushers. The Raiders used tight ends on each side so quick, fast rushers were going to be neutralized. Gossett had time to make his extra step in the walkdown and kick to the coffin corner or wherever.

A lot of young punters haven't been trained in those blocking schemes, so if they just kick to the side, their 35- or 40-yard punts will only net 32 yards, meaning nice field position for the Chiefs.

But desperate times force desperate decisions by coaches when Hall is involved. The momentum swing from a Hall touchdown is hard to overcome. The Chiefs win when Hall makes a return.

While there are options to minimize Hall, to simply say "Don't kick to Hall" is ludicrous. Hall is emerging as the return specialist of the ages. He's the MVP for the first five weeks of the season. In the NFL, you can contain great players, but you can't silence them forever.

But give the other special teams coaches credit. They are trying to find a way to stop the Chiefs weapon of mutual destruction. It's not as easy stop it as you would think.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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