The Evolution of NFL Special Teams…and the Gosselin Rankings
Plus the Mount Rushmore(s) of NFL special teams coaches
(Published June 2021)
Back in 1980, on Wednesday mornings during the fall when the Kansas City Chiefs were conducting their morning walk-through, I would slip into the closet-sized office of special-teams coach Frank Gansz at Arrowhead Stadium for an education on NFL special teams. The room was big enough for two chairs, a desk and a projector to watch film.
Gansz showed me the concepts of kickoff coverage – “stay in your lane” – and explained to me the value of directional punting. He pointed out the soft spots in opponent kick protection and how he planned to exploit them that Sunday with some creative rushes.
Gansz also showed me his formula for ranking NFL special teams. Not all the franchises had special-teams coaches in 1980. The kicking game was still an after-thought in pro football. So Gansz devised a 12-category formula to determine how his Kansas City special teams performed in relation to the rest of the league.
I took his formula that year and figured out the league rankings. For five years I compiled the rankings for my own benefit, just to find out who was good in the kicking game and who wasn’t. The first time I published the rankings was 1985 when I worked for United Press International in Kansas City. I’ve taken the rankings with me over the last 38 years and published them at my career stops with The Kansas City Star, The Dallas Morning News and, of late, The Talk of Fame Network.
Back in 1985, only 12 of the 28 NFL teams employed coaches whose exclusive responsibility was special teams. Ten other teams had coaches who split their responsibilities between special teams and a position group – tight ends, linebackers or offensive line. Six teams didn’t even have a coach on staff assigned to special teams.
I’ve watched the growth of the kicking game in the three-plus decades since then:
–The increased emphasis on the special teams. Football is a game of field position. The NFL finally realized that the biggest chunks of yardage are exchanged on the kicking downs. So teams are now treating special teams like they are a third of the game – equal partners of the offense and defense. All 32 teams now have a special-teams “coordinator.” Nine of the teams devote three coaches to the kicking game. The Eagles have their third coach assigned to quality control in the kicking game and the Buccaneers have assigned theirs strictly to the kickers. Better coaching translates into better results.
–The arrival of deep snappers. The days of Minnesota’s Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff spending 14 seasons snapping on placements and punts for the Vikings are over. The Pro Bowl centers now leave the field after three downs in today’s NFL. Patrick Mannelly played more games than any player in the illustrious history of the Chicago Bears – and he was a deep snapper. He played 245 career games without a single start. There are three NFL deep-snappers who played even more games than Mannelly – Trey Junkin (281), Don Muhlbach (260) and L.P. Ladouceur (253). If teams have a reliable deep snapper, they hold on to him.
–The emergence of coverage aces. Once upon a time NFL special-team units were comprised of backups – players not good enough to start. But Bill Bates, Reyna Thompson and Steve Tasker showed the NFL the value of players dedicated to covering kicks and doing the dirty work on the downs that have the greatest impact on field position. Now every team has an ace or two. In 2019, the Patriots suited up four of them – Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Nate Ebner and Brandon Bolden – and finished third in the NFL in special teams.
–The sophistication of the kickers. In 1985, Dale Hatcher of the Rams led the NFL with a net punting overage of 38.0 yards per kick. In 2020, Jake Bailey of the Patriots led the league with a net average of 45.6 yards. The league average in 1985 was 34.5 net yards. The league average in 2020 was 40.5. In 1985, Nick Lowery converted a league-best 88.9 percent of his field goals for the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2020, there were nine kickers who converted better than 90 percent of their field-goal tries. Graham Gano of the Giants led the way with a 96.9 percent conversion rate (31 of 32).
–The emergence of return specialists. In 1986, Mel Gray came to the NFL from the USFL, signing with the New Orleans Saints. He was listed as a running back/wide receiver and touched the ball only six times from scrimmage that season. But he returned 31 kickoffs and averaged 27.1 yards per return. Gray then led the NFL in punt returns in 1987. Dave Meggett came along in 1989, Brian Mitchell in 1990 and Tyrone Hughes in 1993. They paved the way for Dante Hall, Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester of the 2000 decade as teams realized the value of an impact return specialist. Hester set the NFL record with 20 career touchdowns returning kicks.
The Cleveland Browns finished first in 1985 in my first published rankings. Their special-teams coach? Bill Cowher. Hall of Famer Bill Cowher. He’s one of two coaches to finish first in my rankings and also win a Super Bowl as a head coach. John Harbaugh is the other.
I’ve tracked special-teams coaches over the years – more than 100 of them since I started publishing the rankings 38 years ago. Some coached as few as one season, others as many as three decades. There have been 71 who have coached special teams for at least five NFL seasons.
So I put together a list of those coaches who fared the best – their average finish in my rankings. Only seven have an average finish in the Top 10. The list below includes the coach, his number of seasons as a special-teams coach, his average finish, the number of times his units finished first in my rankings, the number of times his units finished in the Top 5 and the number of times his units finished in the Top 10. Here’s the Top 50 special teams coaches:
|Rank||Coach||Seasons||Average||Titles||Top 5||Top 10|
In the 38 years there have been 27 different coaches who have finished first in the rankings. Three coaches became three-time winners – Bobby April, Scott O’Brien and Brad Seely. Five coaches became two-time winners — Harbaugh, Toub, Rodriguez, Fipp and Marciano.
If I were to build a Mount Rushmore of special-teams coaches…well, I’d actually build two of them. One for the historic significance and the other for performance.
In terms of historical significance, I’d include the first two coaches ever hired specifically to coach special teams, both in 1969 – Marv Levy and Dick Vermeil. Both went on to become NFL head coaches who took teams to Super Bowls. Both now have busts in Canton.
I’d also include Gansz for putting special teams on the map in the 1980s with his work at the Chiefs. He showed the NFL you could actually win games on special teams. In the 1986 season finale – a road game the Chiefs needed to win to clinch a playoff spot – Kansas City beat Pittsburgh 24-21 with every point coming on special teams: a field goal plus touchdowns on a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a kickoff return. Albert Lewis blocked four punts for the Chiefs that season and 11 in his career.
I’d round out the historical Mount Rushmore with Harbaugh, who proved career special-teams coaches could become successful head coaches. Cowher spent the bulk of his career as an assistant as a defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Steelers. Harbaugh spent the bulk of his career as a special-teams coach before getting the opportunity to become a head coach with the Ravens. Any special-teams coach who becomes an NFL head coach going forward has Harbaugh to thank.
The first face on the Mount Rushmore of productivity would be Toub, who has served those 18 seasons as special teams coach of the Bears and Chiefs. For 14 consecutive years, from 2006 through 2019, Toub’s special teams finished in the Top 10 – the longest stretch of excellence in the history of these rankings. The next longest streak was seven years by Jerry Rosburg with the Baltimore Ravens from 2012-18. Toub’s teams finished in the Top 3 in seven of those 14 seasons.
The next two faces would be O’Brien and Seely, who posted three first-place finishes apiece. Seely did it with three different teams – San Francisco, Cleveland and Indianapolis. O’Brien did it with two, New England and Cleveland. O’Brien set the record for these rankings with a low score of 129.5 in 1994 with the Browns. His head coach at both Cleveland and New England was Bill Belichick. Seely also coached special teams for Belichick for 10 seasons at New England, finishing second in the rankings in 2002.
I’d round out this Mount Rushmore with Rodriguez, who coached five different teams and finished first with two of them, Washington in 1995 and Seattle in 1999. He finished in the Top 5 in the rankings at each of his first four coaching stops and in the Top 10 in his fifth and final stop at Jacksonville. Rodriguez finished in the Top 10 in 11 of his 19 seasons.