Rick Gosselin’s 2017 NFL Special Teams Rankings
First crown for Rams special teams coach John Fassel
(Published February 2018)
The Rams brought in Sean McVay as head coach to change the direction of the NFL’s worst offense. McVay hired Wade Phillips to transform the 4-3 defense of Fisher into a 3-4 scheme with some teeth in the pass rush. But the Rams elected to stand pat on special teams, keeping John Fassel as the kicking-game coordinator.
Plenty went wrong for the Fisher Rams in 2016 on the way to a 4-12 finish. But special teams was not a part of the problem – and McVay clearly saw the kicking game as a part of his solution. The Rams finished fourth in the NFL in special teams in 2016, and the decision to keep Fassel on staff paid immediate and immense dividends.
Fassel’s special teams played a huge role in the dramatic turnaround by Los Angeles – the first winning season and playoff berth by the Rams since 2004 and their first NFC West title since 2003. Fassel coached a special-teams effort for the ages, with his Rams finishing first in the NFL special teams rankings compiled annually by Rick Gosselin for the last 39 years.
Here’s the formula for the rankings: The league’s 32 teams are ranked in 22 kicking game categories and assigned points according to their standing – one for best, 32 for worst. In the 14 years the ranking has expanded to include 22 categories, no team had ever amassed fewer than 200 total points.
Until the 2017 Rams.
The Rams finished first with 196.5 points for a 30-point edge over the runnerup Kansas City Chiefs. Rounding out the Top 5 were the AFC-champion New England Patriots at 231.5 points, the Baltimore Ravens at 233 and the Dallas Cowboys at 250.5 points.
How dominant were the Rams? All four of their specialists were selected for the Pro Bowl – kicker Greg Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker, return specialist Pharoh Cooper and deep snapper Jake McQuaide.
The Rams finished first in six of the categories and runnerup in five others. The Rams had three other Top-5 finishes and four more Top-10 finishes. So the Rams were a Top-10 finisher in 18 of the 22 categories in these special-teams rankings. That’s dominance.
“It was a team effort by guys respecting and trusting each other and wanting to do it together,” Fassel said. “It was fun to be in the meetings Monday through Saturday because that’s where you build your production and confidence on game day. The attentiveness and the work ethic showed up all season really without any let down. And we stayed healthy, which was critical. It just came down to a lot of guys doing their jobs and respecting the work of their teammates and believing in each other.”
Fassel also credited the success of his special teams to the the emphasis placed on the kicking game by the youngest head coach in NFL history, the 31-year-old McVay.
“When I had my exit meeting at the end of the season, I commended Sean, as an offensive guy, for having that kind of respect for special teams as far as roster decisions,” Fassel said, “Not only who makes the team but who dresses on game days. He had a huge amount of respect for that aspect of the game.
“I told him a critical factor for success on special teams is having the right fits in dressing (the) 43, 44, 45 and 46 (players on game day) and having them as your special teams go-to guys. He really did take all those things into consideration. He let us know early in the week, `These guys are going to dress. Put your plan together and have some fun.’ To have that kind of appreciation for the big picture was pretty amazing (for such a young coach). It was a huge factor in our success.”
Zuerlein led the NFL in scoring with 158 points despite spending the final two games of the season on injured reserve with a back injury. He kicked an NFL runnerup 38 field goals, including a pair of 56-yarders.
Hekker finished second in the NFL with a net punting average of 44.3 yards. Thirty of his punts pinned the opposition inside the 20.
Cooper averaged 27.4 yards on kickoffs with a 103-yard touchdown against Jacksonville. He also led the NFL in punt returns with a 12.5-yard average.
The Rams blocked a league-high five kicks. There were only 11 punts blocked league-wide this season, and the Rams had three of them. Corey Littleton was the only player in the NFL to block two punts.
The Buffalo Bills charted the best single-season improvement under new head coach Sean McDermott, a leap of 17 spots from 24th in 2016 to seventh in 2017. The signing of free-agent kicker Stephen Hauschka paid dividends for the Bills. He kicked 29 of 33 field goals, including a league-high seven from 50 yards or more.
The 2017 runner-up Chiefs were particularly strong in the kicking game, leading the NFL with 41 field goals and becoming one of only seven teams not to miss a conversion kick. The Patriots, with Pro Bowl special teams ace Matthew Slater, were particularly strong in coverage, finishing third in the NFL in kickoff coverage (18.8 yards) and fourth in punt coverage (4.56 yards).
Here’s a breakdown of the 22 categories:
Best: Baltimore 27.5 yards
Worst: Detroit 18.2 yards
Best: Detroit 14.0 yards
Worst: NY Jets 4.5 yards
Best: Baltimore 18.63 yards
Worst: Atlanta 26.2 yards
Best: Dallas 4.17 yards
Worst: Houston 12.4 yards
KICKOFF STARTING POINT
Best: Baltimore 27.8-yard line
Worst: LA Chargers 22.9-yard line
OPPONENT STARTING POINT
Best: Miami 23.0-yard line
Worst: Cleveland 26.5-yard line
Best: Tennessee 49.7 yards
Worst: Minnesota 42.16 yards
Best: Tennessee 44.5 yards
Worst: NY Giants 36.7 yards
INSIDE THE 20 PUNTS
Best: Baltimore 40
Worst: (tie) Green Bay, NY Giants 19
Best: Kansas City 42.6 yards
Worst: Tennessee 48.2 yards
OPPONENT NET PUNTING
Worst: Houston 42.8 yards
Best: Kansas City 41
Worst: (tie) Cleveland, Green Bay 15
FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
Best: Carolina 96.6 percent
Worst: LA Chargers 66.6 percent
OPPPONENT GIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE
Best: LA Rams 67.6 percent
Worst: Houston 94.3 percent
EXTRA POINT PERCENTAGE
Best: 6 Teams tied at 100 percent (Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, Kansas City, NY Jets)
Worst: NY Giants 86.9 percent
Best: Chicago 18 points
Worst: 17 teams tied with 0 points
Best: 15 teams tied with 0 points: Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Dallas, Detroit, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, LA Rams, New England, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tennessee
Worst: Tampa Bay 18 points
Best: LA Rams 5
Worst: 8 teams tied with 0 blocked kicks: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Houston, Minnesota, NY Jets, San Francisco, Tennessee
OPPONENT BLOCKED KICKS
Best: 9 teams tied with 0 blocked kicks: Buffalo, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, LA Rams, Miami, New England, Seattle
Worst: NY Giants 6 blocked kicks
Best: Tampa Bay 4
Worst: 11 teams tied with 0 takeaways: Baltimore, Carolina, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, LA Chargers, Miami, NY Giants, NY Jets, Pittsburgh, Washington
Best: 13 teams tied with 0 giveaways: Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, LA Chargers, Minnesota, New England, NY Giants, Seattle, Tampa Bay
Worst: (tie) LA Rams & Washington 4 apiece
Best: Minnesota 11 penalties, 98 yards
Worst: Jacksonville 26 penalties, 203 yards