The kicking game has become very important in today's NFL because everybody's looking for ways to win, trying to explore new avenues to find an edge. So perhaps it's no surprise that we're in an era of advanced special teams play, with prodigious punters and placekickers setting new performance benchmarks under the direction of dedicated, innovative coaches.
We've already seen six punts blocked through the first two weeks of the 2012 campaign. By contrast, just nine were blocked throughout the entire 2011 season. What's more, these special teams efforts played a significant role in determining the outcomes of games: Five of this season's blocked punts contributed to victories (see box to the right).
This no accident. The increase in activity can be traced to a more sophisticated approach to special teams.
Take the punt that Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib blocked in a Week 1 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Talib was able to get to Panthers punter Brad Nortman because the Buccaneers ran something similar to a zone blitz concept, with Talib streaking to Nortman instead of sticking with the Panthers' flyer on the perimeter.
Special teams used to be sort of an afterthought in the NFL. Now every team has a full-time special teams coach, and 25 have assistants. Exotic packages, like the one that led to the blocked punt in the Panthers-Buccaneers game, are becoming increasingly common.
Of course, special teams stakes are also much higher in this era of big-armed quarterbacks and high-flying offenses. Field position is crucial. The signal-callers today are so good and so accurate, and they move so quickly, that it's to the kicking team's advantage to make an offense start as far back on the field as possible. In Week 1, punters seem to have done a good job of this, as 11 punters averaged more than 50 yards per boot.
The St. Louis Rams are one team that's working to stay ahead of the kicking curve. Before April's draft, coach Jeff Fisher told special teams coach John Fassel that the Rams were going to have a rookie kicker and a rookie punter, and that it was Fassel's job to find the best two prospects. So the Rams drafted kicker Greg Zuerlein -- who I think will eventually break the record for longest field goal, as I wrote last week -- and signed rookie punter Johnny Hekker as an undrafted free agent.
Hekker was one of the key elements to the Rams' victory over the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Late in the fourth quarter, St. Louis was holding on to a tenuous three-point lead and had been backed up to its own 11-yard line. So Hekker booted the ball 66 yards, whereupon the return man lost another three yards, putting the Redskins on their own 21. Earlier in the quarter, Hekker kicked a 44-yard directional punt out of bounds, which is a phenomenal feat. Hekker, by the way, was a high school quarterback in Washington, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see him throw a pass sometime this season.
Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay got to take his own turn throwing a pass -- sort of -- when he flipped the ball to Packers tight end Tom Crabtree on a fake field-goal attempt in last Thursday night's win over the Chicago Bears. Crabtree darted into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game on what was a very well-planned play. Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum is very good, and I was impressed that he was able to pull this stunt off against the Bears' tough special teams unit. I don't think we're about to see a rash of fake field goals, but this is another example of how teams are paying more attention than ever to special teams.
Kickers also seem to be doing better than ever. In Week 2, kickers were successful on 56 of 59 attempted field goals. Historical data on league-wide kicking isn't kept, so there's no way to say for sure, but I have to think that this was one of the more successful kicking weeks ever. One of the missed attempts was a 62-yard boot, one was into the wind at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and the third, of course, was the errant try by Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski that helped the Arizona Cardinals knock off New England.
I spoke with two special teams coaches, Joe Marciano of the Houston Texans and Joe DeCamillis of the Dallas Cowboys, about this special teams renaissance. They said that it's virtually impossible to block a field goal today, unless the kicking team doesn't have enough men on the field or something else goes wrong. Both coaches pointed to the impeccable timing of current kicking units as a key reason. Deep snappers are so good at getting the ball back, and holders are so good at spinning the laces, that the defending team just physically can't rush and get to the kicker before the ball is away. It helps that kickers are also elevating the ball a lot quicker than they used to, getting it up higher faster.
» I'd known Steve Sabol, the NFL Films president who sadly passed away Tuesday, since 1965, and I always knew him to be a very bright guy who was immensely interested in the top pro prospects. One of my favorite memories of him was when he pulled what he later told me was one of the biggest coups of his career: getting New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to wear a mic at Super Bowl XLII. I was at that game, and I remember Sabol sitting in a box next to me, listening to Belichick call for the Patriots to find a way to get Randy Moss the football on one of their final drives. The New York Giants, of course, went on to win; whether Sabol's recording of Belichick was ever used or released, I don't know.
» Sundays during the football season are probably the busiest days of the year for me. I start getting calls from coaches and other folks in the game early in the morning, and they don't stop coming until late in the day. Last Sunday, I took two calls of note. First, a coach who works for the Arizona Cardinals called to tell me that they were going to slay the dragon -- meaning the New England Patriots -- which, of course, they went on to do. Second, Cecil Newton Sr., the father of Carolina Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton, called to tell me how nervous he was ahead of his son's game against the New Orleans Saints. I assured him he had nothing to worry about, and, of course, he didn't: Newton threw for 253 yards, ran for 71 and scored two total touchdowns in a 35-27 victory.
» Last week, I predicted the replacement officials would continue to improve as they gained experience. Despite the attention given to their performance in the Monday-night matchup between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, I don't think the needle has moved much one way or the other. They didn't perform much better than they did in Week 1, but I don't think they got worse. They definitely weren't as bad as everyone was making them out to be.
When you've been around the NFL as long as I have, you've seen all kinds of officiating, good and bad. Officials made mistakes on Monday, but the regular officials have made plenty of their own throughout history. The spotlight is on the replacements, though, which means their errors get extra attention.
» After Steven Jackson came out of Sunday's game, the Rams got 83 unexpected rushing yards from rookie running back Daryl Richardson. My Unsung Hero for Week 2 is Rams area scout Steve Kazor, who deserves a lot of credit for spotting Richardson at Abilene Christian's pro day, where the eventual seventh-round draft pick posted eye-popping numbers (like a 40 1/2-inch vertical jump and an 11-3 broad jump).
Guys who show promise at their pro days -- like Richardson and Redskins rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round draft pick out of Florida Atlantic who has emerged to rush for 185 yards and two touchdowns this season -- are the ones you want to take a chance on.