Note: For nine years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend. At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.
On Sunday we saw some big surprises, like the Vikings' dominating win over the Giants on the road and the not-so-surprising results when teams kick to athletes like Devin Hester. Who are the coaches behind the scene in these situations and other outstanding performances in week 12? Let's go beyond the coordinators, who develop the plans and make the calls, and honor some other coaches.
1. DAVE TOUB
Special teams coach, Chicago Bears
If it has been said once it has been said a thousand times: Don't kick to Devin Hester! The Broncos ignored that simple rule and paid for it in their 37-34 loss to Chicago. Broncos punter and kickoff man Todd Sauerbrun said, "We have guys who can cover." Well, Toub has guys who can block, and the Bears' return units won the battle on Sunday, as Hester had 232 return yards and two touchdowns.
Toub, in his 11th year as an NFL coach, is assisted by Kevin O'Dea, who is in his 14th year. The Bears' special teams were the difference in their game against Denver, and their returns and blocked punt against the Broncos are the biggest reasons Chicago is still alive in the playoff hunt. The Bears also punted six times, with a 40-yard average; held the Broncos to 5 yards on punt returns; and held Denver to a 15.4-yard average on kick returns.
2. JOE WOODS
Secondary coach, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings had a tremendous game plan against the Giants' offense in their 41-17 upset win at the Meadowlands. They used the blitz and straight coverage calls to force New York into several mistakes.
Woods, only in his fourth year as a pro coach, had to get his secondary ready to go on the road without his top cornerback, Antoine Winfield, who was replaced by rookie Marcus McCauley. On the opposite side was second-year man Cedric Griffin. The Vikings secondary intercepted Eli Manning three times and scored twice off those picks (linebacker Chad Greenway had the defense's fourth interception and third returned for a score). The young corners held their own and combined for eight tackles and two passes defensed.
Woods had his players ready for the Giants passing attack, and they all seemed to know what routes were coming. The Vikings secondary contributed 132 return yards and greatly improved the image of a defense that was ranked last in the NFL against the pass.
3. RICH BISACCIA
Special teams coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bisaccia has been with the Bucs his entire six-year NFL career. When Bucs QB Jeff Garcia left early and the game turned into a defensive battle, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the special teams. The Bucs, who didn't have a first down in the second half of their 19-13 victory over Washington, finished the day with seven punts for a 50.4-yard average and a terrific 42-yard net, which constantly put the Redskins on a long field.
Bisaccia's coverage units also performed well, as Washington had a 4.8-yard average on punt returns and a mediocre 20.8-yard average on kickoff returns. In a game that was decided by only six points, Tampa's four field goals turned out to be the difference.
4. PAUL ALEXANDER
Offensive line coach, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals' season has not been one to remember, but on Sunday the team looked like the playoff contender it was supposed to be in 2007. The offense was without the services of OT Willie Anderson once again and still had a fine day running and passing in a 35-6 rout of Tennessee.
Alexander has a reputation as a teacher, and his young offensive line really played well against the Titans' top-ranked defense. Cincinnati ran the ball 36 times for 148 yards, while the pass protection let Carson Palmer complete 32 of 38 passes and throw for three touchdowns. Alexander, who is also the assistant head coach for the Bengals, could be on the short list for a few of the college head-coaching positions starting to open up.
5. TOM RATHMAN
Running backs coach, Oakland Raiders
Most NFL fans remember the rugged Rathman as a great NFL fullback. He was a very tough player for nine years in the league and now is in his 11th year as a coach. Man, how time flies.
The Raiders signed RB Dominic Rhodes from the world champion Colts in the offseason, but LaMont Jordan carried the team while Rhodes served a four-game suspension. All the while, fifth-year backup Justin Fargas worked hard for Rathman and waited his turn. Finally, the Raiders went with the kid, and he has run the ball extremely well, especially on Sunday, when he carried 22 times for 139 yards and a touchdown in the Raiders' 20-17 divisional win at Kansas City and the league's 10th-ranked defense.
Rathman got the most out of Fargas, especially in the final drive, when the Chiefs knew the Raiders were trying to kill the clock. The Raiders gave Fargas the ball five times for 43 yards to clinch the win. Rathman got him ready, instilled that Rathman mentality, and the player did the rest.
6. MEL TUCKER
Secondary coach, Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in the playoff hunt mainly because of their offense. Maybe so earlier in the year, but recently it's a different story, as the back end of the Browns defense starts to come around.
Tucker is in only his third year in the NFL, and he takes his marching orders from defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. In the last three games, the Browns have generated 12 sacks and five interceptions. On Sunday, Tucker was without starting cornerback Eric Wright, and the Browns were facing a Texans team that had not lost a game with WR Andre Johnson in the lineup. A big challenge to say the least. Cleveland contained Johnson (three receptions for 37 yards), and the secondary picked off Matt Schaub once, defended six passes, forced a fumble and collected 15 tackles in a 27-17 win.