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Special Effects

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Jul 20, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

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    Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://croceonchargers.blogspot.com/2006/07/entry-7-special-effects-ben-croce.html">Croce on Chargers</a>

    <img alt="Nate Kaeding and Mike Scifres" title="Nate Kaeding and Mike Scifres" src="http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050812/images/sp_chargers.jpg" />

    By Ben Croce

    Thanks to Adam Sandler, the plight of the Lonesome Kicker will always be immortalized in his song with the same title. While many a game have been won or lost on the boot of a soccer style kicker, the position may still be one of the most thankless in the sport. Jim Carrey dedicated an entire movie to a psychotic place kicker gone bad, driven mad over a missed Super Bowl field goal when Dan Marino forgot to hold the ball "laces out." Last year, Skip Bayless wrote an article opining the reasons why place kicking should be eliminated from the game altogether. Quarterback Doug Flutie almost sent them to extinction when he filled in with the special team and dropped kicked an extra point through the uprights in 2005.

    So what is so special about special teams? Under this umbrella, the thankless kicker gets lumped together with the punter, the punt return team, the kick return team and the coverage teams. Glamorous it is not, and yet these players determine the game's momentum. They ultimately dictate field position, having only one shot to strategically place the ball in an advantageous location before handing it over to the offense (who has four chances to move the ball ten yards), or lining up to cover the opponents' return teams, trying to stop them dead in their tracks to yield poor field position. Further, the special teams do not always control their own destiny: the punt return team must be on the receiving end of a decent punt in order to have a decent return. The same can be said for the kick return team.

    The coverage units function on discipline, attitude, hustle and tackling, running much like a defense in which a pattern exists. They have an element to contain, an element to fill in inside, and an element to pursue it. If any of those are missing, the team cannot provide adequate coverage and give opposing return teams unnecessary yardage to their advantage (or forcing the kicker to tackle the returner). Poor field position may see a team halted with a three and out, the crowd growing silent and morose, and the opponents steadily building confidence and gaining yardage. Excellent field position on an incredible kick return shows the crowd on its feet, filling the stadium with noise, and the returning team gaining confidence on the momentum of a successful run. Yes, special teams often control the momentum and energy of the game based on the field position they deliver.

    Achieving great field position was an area in which the Chargers struggled many times in the 2005 season, never performing at embarrassing levels, but also never consistently performing to greatness. Last year, Darren Sproles led the Bolts in kick returns, averaging 24.3 yards per carry, with 63 returns for 1528 yards. Not bad, but this average saw Sproles ranked twelfth in the league, tied with Josh Cribbs of Cleveland, who only had 45 carries. Sproles also led the team in punt returns, bringing back 18 balls for 108 yards, an average of only 6.0 yards per carry. He barely nudged out Eric Parker, who also returned 18 punts, but only averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

    Similarly, punter Mike Scifres ranked tenth in the league with 71 punts for a total of 3104 yards, averaging 43.7 gross yards per punt and 38.0 net yards per punt. The league punt leader, Brian Moorman of Buffalo, also booted 71 punts last year but averaged 45.7 gross yards per punt. You don't have to be a mathematician to see how those yards add can start to add up and make a significant difference over the course of a game, and season. While none of these numbers are horrible, mediocrity doesn't get teams to the play offs. If the Bolts want to make the Super Bowl run that I believe they are poised to make in 2006, they need to step it up on their not-so-special teams.

    Unfortunately, improvements and changes made to the special teams cannot readily be seen during the off-season. How often does a team draft a kick return specialist, or sign a big name free agent punt return blocker? They don't. Special teams hide their hands in the off-season, giving outsiders only enough of a glimpse to leave them guessing and scratching their heads.

    One such head scratche occurred when GM A.J. Smith selected kicker Kurt Smith of the University of Virginia in the sixth round of the 2006 draft. Currently, the Chargers boast their most statistically accurate kicker in team history, Nate Kaeding, taken just two years earlier in the third round of the 2004 draft. Unfortunately for kickers, when they line up for a field goal attempt, it generally means that someone on offense failed to do his job. Fortunately for the Bolts, Kaeding made 87.5% of his field goal attempts in 2005, going 21 of 24. He also converted 100% of his extra point attempts, contributing a total of 100 points to the Chargers 2005 scoreboard. With two year veteran Kaeding appearing to be one of the most consistent players on the roster, why would the Bolts draft another kicker?

    While Kaeding may have sent the ball through the uprights an incredible number of times, his heavily taped foot did not consistently send the ball into the end zone on kick offs, sacrificing precious field position time and again. That's why.

    Now enter Smith, a Georgia native blessed with the ability to boot the football for extended distances, and no doubt brought in as a much needed weapon in the Chargers' field position arsenal. As a senior at Virginia, Smith kicked off 66 times, and saw the ball in the end zone 81% of the time, resulting in a touchback 57% of the time. If Smith can consistently do the same in the NFL, a sixth round draft pick may prove to be a small investment for a pick that can make a substantial difference in dictating opponents' field position, allowing Merriman to pressure QBs on their own 20 yard line, instead of the 35. Still, if Kaeding can out-boot Smith on kick offs, the draft pick will prove to be a wasted one.

    In addition to adding a kicker, the Bolts inked special teams standout Kassim Osgood to a four year contract in January. Osgood played as one of the AFC's most dominant special teams players until he tore a pectoral muscle on December 4. At the time of the tear, he led the Chargers with 19 tackles on special teams, also wracking up 21 receptions for the year. Osgood finished second to Hanik Milligan, who went to the Pro Bowl in 2006 with 21 special teams tackles.

    The Bolts showed promise on special teams in 2005, and appear to be making moves in the off-season toward improvement. If they can consistently improve their field position, they may ease the burden on new starter Philip Rivers, a factor that could affect Rivers' confidence. If he constantly sees his offense starting on their own nine yard line, Rivers may be forced to make hasty plays and miscalculated throws when defenses blitz the young guy over and over. However, forcing opponents to start inside their own 20 could set the defense up to win games and propel the Chargers to a Super Bowl. When you think about it, special teams just might be the difference between Rivers actually wearing a Super Bowl Ring, or just pretending to while he plays himself in a Jim Carrey comedy. For the sake of both football fans and moviegoers, I am hoping for the former
     

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