Special teams can be a momentum changer

ESPN analyst Joe Theismann breaks down the special teams of the Panthers and Patriots.

Updated: January 29, 2004, 4:02 PM ET
By Joe Theismann | Special to ESPN.com

So far, in my daily Cup O' Joe, I've talked about the quarterbacks and the defenses. Now, it's time to take a look at the Patriots and Panthers special teams units.

Adam Vinatieri
Adam Vinatieri needs to come up big on Sunday.

It's easy to underestimate the importance of special teams, but from personal experience, I know just how big of an impact special teams can be in a Super Bowl. In my first Super Bowl (XVII) with the Redskins, against the Miami Dolphins, we gave up a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, early in the second quarter, to Fulton Walker -- huge momentum killer! There's nothing worse than watching a guy take off against your team. Luckily, we overcame that setback and won the game 27-17.

The following season, when the Redskins returned to the Super Bowl to face the Raiders, a special teams play got us again. But this time, we weren't able to overcome the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown by Derrick Jensen. That hurt our team because our game plan was to try and stay close to the Raiders until the fourth quarter. It's tough to go into a game, feeling great about your team's chances, and then boom you're down 7-0. It's an awful feeling that contributed mightily to our 38-7 loss.

Because of the great defenses in Sunday's Super Bowl matchup, field position will be paramount. Instead of attempting 50-yard field goals, I expect both teams to try to pin the opposing team inside the 15-yard line to ensure better field position. That puts major emphasis on the punting games.

This should be a close, well-played game that's outcome might hinder on one or two plays. Neither team wants to lose the game because of a big, special teams play. I'm sure both coaching staffs are paying close attention to this integral part of the game.

The Panthers hold the advantage at punter with nine-year veteran Todd Sauerbrun over Patriots punter Ken Walter. Sauerbrun has a big leg and can boom the ball as evidenced by his 44.6-yard average. In Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons, I watched him boom punts for 40 minutes with a pumped up ball before the game and walked away impressed by his leg and dedication to his job. Meanwhile, Walter averaged only 37.7 yards per punt and wasn't very effective this season. The Patriots seem to rely more on their defense than on the punting game to limit opponents' field position. I don't expect that to change in the Super Bowl.

At the kicker position, the Panthers have a surprising advantage because of John Kasay's consistency. The nod in this matchup would normally go to Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, but this season has been up and down for him. Many people believe Vinatieri's big-game experience gives him the edge, but I believe it's overblown in this case. Sure, he's made two huge kicks over the past few seasons, but that means nothing this week. He has to make the kicks -- not his reputation.

Both teams feature explosive return units that can turn the game's momentum around. The Patriots use speedsters Troy Brown and rookie Bethel Johnson. Brown has proven ability to take a return all the way and Johnson has joined him as a dangerous threat. But Johnson's youth may be a hinderance for the Pats because young return men are more apt to make mistakes and hurt the team -- particularly in big games. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers have explosive return men Steve Smith and Rod Smart. Both are experienced, dangerous and won't be intimidated by the immensity of the game.

Joe Theismann

Football analyst
Former college and pro football star Joe Theismann has served as an analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football since 1988. He also is frequently heard on ESPN Radio, regularly contributes to ESPN.com and has contributed to the NFL Draft.

ALSO SEE