Special teams coaches prove to be the difference

Note: For nine years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes who 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.

The NFL just finished up its last week with byes in the schedule. From here to the finish teams have to go with as many healthy bodies as possible. Teams will have guys at 80 percent healthy out on the field and there will be no excuses. This week, we watched a number of coaches get great effort from the players they had available. Keep in mind, as injuries occur backups have to start and the ripple effect usually hits the special teams hard.


Special teams coach, San Diego

Cosby is in his 23rd year of coaching in the NFL and is one of the most respected special teams coaches in the league. His unit's two touchdowns were a major factor in helping the Chargers beat the world champion Colts. Darren Sproles returned a kickoff 89 yards for a score and came back a little later with a 45 yard punt return for a score. Beyond those great plays, that were aided by excellent blocking, the Chargers punt coverage held the Colts to minus-5 yards and put three punts inside the 20-yard-line. Cosby did a great job of having his players ready to win against the Colts.


Special teams coach, Cincinnati

Simmons was a college punter for Kansas and is now in his 11th season as an NFL coach. The Bengals made seven field goals, which amounted to all of the Bengals' points. The unit showed its preparedness with excellent snaps, holds and protection on all seven kicks. What makes the execution even more impressive was the ensuing kickoff coverage after each field goal. The Bengals' coverage units gave up an average of just 16 yards per return and constantly put the Ravens on a long field, something Baltimore could not overcome.

3. KEVIN SPENCER Special teams coach, Arizona

Spencer is in his 17th NFL season and has a Super Bowl ring from his days in Pittsburgh. His special teams played an excellent game against the Lions this week. His return man, Steve Breaston, had four punt returns for 69 yards (17.3 per return) and two kickoff returns for 69 yards. One punt return went for 46 yards behind a well-executed blocking scheme and it set up a touchdown three plays later. One of the kickoff returns went for 52 yards and gave the Cardinals great field position. The hidden-yardage game that all special team coaches want to play generated at least six hidden first downs for the Cardinals under Spencer's coaching.

4. MIKE ZIMMER Defensive coordinator, Atlanta

Zimmer first got his NFL reputation as a very good coordinator when he worked with the Dallas Cowboys. He is a 4-3 coach by trade and the Cowboys were headed into the world of the 3-4. Zimmer moved on to Atlanta this year, his 14th in the league, and immediately lost DE Patrick Kerney in free agency and then DT Rod Coleman was slow to recover from injury. Coleman is finally at 100 percent, and it showed in Zimmer's scheme. Coleman had two sacks and a forced fumble, and the Falcons looked like a terrific defense on the road in Carolina. Zimmer's defense held the Panthers to 235 yards and Carolina converted on only 3-of-16 third downs. Look for better defense from the Falcons now that Zimmer has enough players to develop and execute his game plans.

5. JAMES CAMPEN Offensive line coach, Green Bay

I remember like it was yesterday when Campen was a player in the NFL, especially his days in Green Bay from 1989-'93. He is now in his fourth year as a coach. The Packers' offensive line deserves a lot of credit for Green Bay's success. Quarterback Brett Favre threw 46 passes in the win over Minnesota this week and was not sacked one time. Even more impressive was the ability of the Packers to run the football against one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The blocking schemes were sound and the execution fantastic as young Ryan Grant ran for 119 yards and helped control the clock for 20 more minutes than Minnesota. Campen is a young coach who has a bright future in the NFL.

6. GREG OLSEN (pictured) and PAUL BOUDREAU Offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, St. Louis

Finally, the Rams get a win and everyone on the staff deserves some credit. Olsen is the offensive coordinator and in his sixth NFL season. The Rams piled up over 400 yards of offense and were an impressive 8-for-13 on third downs. The halfback option pass by Steven Jackson was a great call and well executed. The fact that Jackson was healthy and back on the field forced a safety down in the box and opened up the passing attack. Marc Bulger responded with a 302-yard, two-touchdown day.

Of course, the plan wasn't possible if the offensive line didn't get things blocked. No line coach in the NFL has had a rougher year than Boudreau. He has had multiple players at all five line positions because of injury and has never had the same five men in the same spots for two weeks in a row. To compound his problems, the Rams were on the road in noisy New Orleans. It may go unnoticed to many, but I know how hard Boudreau has worked to put a decent line in front of Bulger this year, and maybe this win is the start of a turnaround for the Rams.

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