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Special teams coaches have limited resources

10/22/2003

A special teams coach is like being a king without a crown. And if things get screwed up, there isn't an army of assistants to protect the special teams coach.

In other words, a special breed is needed to be a special teams coach. He has to be energizing and endearing, creative and innovative, thick skinned and resilient. Psychologically, a special teams coach has to have the mentality of a cornerback. Cornerbacks play on an island. If they get beat, they have to block it out, and all cornerbacks get beat.

Same thing for special teams coaches. No matter how much is planned or practiced, a slip here or a bad angle there could turn a 5-yard return into a touchdown, drawing the wrath of the head coach.

"The special teams coach is the only person other than a head coach to talk to the entire team," St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz said. "He has to be a person with a lot of energy. He has to get the attention of everyone in the room."

Special teams meetings must be quick. Special teams may be one-third of the game, but a majority of the meetings are geared to offense and defense. It's only natural. The offensive coordinator installs his game plan and the defensive coordinator installs his.

Then comes the special teams coach, who plays to a bigger room. All backups -- offense and defense -- are there. So are most, if not all, of the veteran starters. Special teams coaches must hit their points quickly without losing players, who know their priorities are in the other meeting rooms.

Ron Zook, current head coach at Florida, loved his days as an NFL special teams coach because he knew his coaching impacted more players than offensive and defensive coordinators. In practices, he was the boss of 53 players during the practice time invested to special teams.

Zook felt it's the best training ground for future head coaches because the special teams coach gets to know players on each side of the ball. And, the job is all football. Special teams coaches must be quick. They must present their strategies quickly to keep players' attentions, and they must pump energy in the meeting rooms and on the field.

After all, the game is collisions and explosiveness on special teams. Wedge-busters must sacrifice their bodies to collapse that interior wall of blockers for kick-returners. Gunners, who chase down punt returners from the outside, must put up with 40-yards of pushing from two blockers outside the numbers on the field.

Those special teams coaches who can't motivate players into accepting those painful, thankless jobs don't last long in the NFL.

"You have to be able to communicate with the entire team," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "You have to either do it with a bullhorn or with a loud voice, but you have to get to the players and get to them quickly."

Many great coaches have come from the special teams ranks. Dick Vermeil, Bill Cowher and Marv Levy are just a few.

Unfortunately, special teams can be a dead end. Head coaches generally come from two pools -- coordinators and head coaches in college. The special teams coach finds himself on the wrong side of the important thirds of the game in that regard, so at some point, he has to eventually move into offensive or defensive coordinator roles to advance, and that's tough.

Special teams coaches don't get to specialize in offense or defense. It's all or nothing. And ultimately, they don't get all the players they want.

"The hardest thing for a head coach working with a special teams coach is a lot of special teams coaches want everybody to play but that can't happen," Martz said. "You can't give them all of your starters because you wouldn't have enough players to line up if the starter gets injured on special teams. You have to hire a special teams coach who has a good understanding of that."

While it may be great for a special teams coach to grab all the veteran linebackers who know how to tackle, it's just not possible. They have to beg, borrow and plead just to get a couple of starting linebackers or defensive backs. If starters are on the field for 60 to 70 plays, it's hard to ask them to give 15 to 20 more on special teams, but at least the special teams coaches can get most of the defensive and offensive linemen.

Another issue for special teams coaches is the salary cap. The cap has forced more young guys on the roster, and those are the guys who form the core of the special teams units. And they drive special teams coaches crazy.

It's one of the reason there are more punt and kickoff returns and big plays. More young players fill the 29 backup roles on the 53-man roster. It's not out of the ordinary for a special teams coach to have kickoff coverage units filled with rookies or second-year players. That often leads to disaster.

"Most guys who are rookies were stars in college, so they didn't play special teams in college," Fisher said. "They are learning those jobs for the first time, and because of the circumstances, they have to play."

And if they screw up, it's the special teams coach that gets the blame more than the player.

Injuries are also beyond the control of a special teams coach. So many of the jobs asked of players on special teams involve collisions made after 20- to 40-yard of running. Rusty Tillman, the Vikings special teams coach and one of the best of this era, was known as the King of the special teams when he was a Redskins player because of his willingness to risk concussions to make plays.

This is the reason why you watch special teams coaches constantly walking up and down the bench area with a roster. From series to series, he's constantly adjusting his roster for special teams units because of injuries. This guy goes in for this injured guy. He must find another player to move into another spot. And sometimes, two players at the same position on a unit get hurt, so the special teams coach must teach a player to do something he's never done before along the sidelines.

It's an impossible job, and the one thing you don't see is a head coach calling a timeout for a special teams coach if he's having trouble getting all of his players ready for a play.

"But every head coach knows the importance of special teams," Fisher said. "We call the yardage on special teams the hidden yards because they aren't looked on as much in the stats sheet. I can tell you, you don't win a lot of games if you are on the losing side of the hidden yards every week."

If a kicker hits a slump, the special teams coach gets the heat. If a deep-snapper messes up it's the special teams coaches head. If a punt is returned for a touchdown, all eyes will turn to the special teams coach.

Special teams coaches can be heroes one play and potentially fired the next. It's a tough job.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.