Vince Lombardi

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No Monday Morning Quarterbacks

The 8th Commandment

Special teams involve virtually no play design.

There are three types of special teams plays: (1) Field goals/PATs; (2) Kickoffs/punts; and (3) Kickoff returns/punt returns. QC will explain why each type of special teams play involves virtually no play design.

Field Goals/PATs

The sucess or failure of a field goal/PAT depends entirely on human capital engaged in production. A field goal/PAT does not involve any new designs. For at least the past 20 years, every team in the NFL lines up the same, blocks the same, snaps the ball the same, holds the ball the same, and kicks the ball the same.

In the New York Times Magazine article The Kick Is Up ... And It's A Career Killer, author Michael Lewis noted that in practice, rather than engage in planning and diagramming "new field goal plays" with his kicker Adam Vinatieri (as he might have with his quarterback), Bill Parcells engaged in, well, some pretty odd behavior.

"Parcells would find the exact spot Vinateri had groomed for his kick and walk back and forth across it," Lewis wrote. "Then he'd casually say, 'Oh, were you setting up here?' Just before every kick, Parcells positioned himself between the sun and the ball, to throw a shadow over the proceedings." Vinatieri called Parcells demonstration of his frustration with his powerlessness over field goals "the ground whammy."

Call Parcells actions whatever you want. Just do not call them play design.

Since Parcells and his colleagues could not design better field goal plays to help kickers succeed, kickers decided to design better footballs to help themselves succeed.

In Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum described the kickers' "kitchen work" in the 1999 article Just For Kicks.

"Who knew?" McCallum wrote. "Who knew that footballs had such a turbulent secret life? Volumes have been written about scuffed or juiced-baseballs, paens have been sung to red-white-and blue basketballs, entire belief systems have been tied to titanium-filled golf balls, but until recently all we thought about footballs was that they are damned hard to dribble. It turns out that the Wilson football, which NFL teams have been kicking around since 1941, has quite a checkered past, one that heretofore has been whispered about only in equipment rooms. Footballs have been steam-bathed, baked in aluminum foil, dunked in water, brushed with wire, bonked with hammers, buffed with strips of artificial turf, jumped on, shot out of Jugs machines, pounded into walls or raquet ball courts, inflated and deflated more often than Oprah Winfrey, Armor All-ed, shoe-polished and lemonaded, crushed under weightlifting plates and, like a female wrestler at a county fair, dunked in evaporated milk. Maybe even micro-waved."

It turns out the micro-wave story is probably apocryphal. Former punter and kickoff specialist Mitch Berger said one his kicking cronies tried it and the ball blew up. Too bad. It would have fit QC's kitchen analogy perfectly.

"Here's why everybody does it (or did it)," McCallum wrote. "Almost no player who has to touch a football with his hand or foot likes brand-new Wilsons out of the box, just as fielders don't like spanking new baseball gloves. New footballs are hard, unforgiving, smallish (with a correspondingly small sweet spot) and coated with a film that makes them slippery. They don't travel as far as game-worn balls, and they can't be 'guided' as accurately as roundish, softer balls. When you see a kicker squeeze a ball, it's because he wants to soften it and make it rounder. So it became a ritual in many NFL locker rooms, usually on Friday or Saturday before a home game (the home team supplies game balls), that the 36 game balls were taken out of their boxes and roughed up."

McCallum provided an example: "Chicago Bears kicker Jeff Jaeger and punter Todd Sauerbrun described a recipe for ball preparation that would satisfy any anal-retentive chef: Fill ball with as much air as possible, leave alone for three days, deflate to about eight pounds, push ends of ball repeatedly into corner of table, overinflate again, throw into laundry sack with wet towels and place in clothes dryer. 'Ten minutes was all it would take to get them real hot,' says Sauerbrun. 'They'd bang around in the dryer, and then we'd brush them off.'"

The NFL put a stop to this activity in 1999 when, "alarmed that kickers, in clandestine cahoots with equipment men, ball boys and quarterbacks, were doing everything but sautéing footballs and plating them up with a nice port reduction,", the league introduced the "K-ball." More specifically, the NFL passed a measure mandating that 12 game balls, inscribed with the letter K and sent out in boxes sealed with antitampering tape, would be used exclusively by punters and kickers during games. A box of the balls is delivered to the officials' rooms about 2 1/2 hours before kick-off, and only then are the balls removed from their individual plastic bags.

Initially, the results were dramatic. Two the league's most accurate kickers ever, Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson, missed a combined 7 field goals in the first two weeks of the 1999 season. But then things settled down. Still, in his 1999 article, McCallum ominously noted that "all special teams players are dreading the coming of winter [weather], when the already unforgiving K ball will become positively Old Testament."

But no weather-related K-ball disaster occurred, at least, not until January 6, 2007.

You see, although Wilson footballs are coated with a film that makes them slippery in the box, Wilson also supplies a horsehair brush to remove the slippery film and to bring to the surface a ball's "tackified substance" that makes a ball easier to handle. In 1955, Wilson introduced this tackified substance, known as Grip-Tite, which makes the ball easier to grip, especially when its wet.

Coincidentally, Wilson's introduction of Grip-Tite in 1955 had an immediate, short-lived, dramatic impact on the game, just as the introduction of the K-ball did in 1999. At the beginning of the 1955 season, teams that had traditionally been also-rans, but that relied on passing (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Green Bay), got off to fast starts. Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wright penned an article entitled, The Pros Are Upside Down and Scrambled, in which he asked, "What in the world has happened to professional football? So far, 1955 must go down as the year in which this game has perversely refused to conform to reason." But then things straightened out and Otto Graham and the rest of the Cleveland Browns won the championship, as they usually did in the 1950s.

So it came to pass that on January 6, 2007, with his Dallas Cowboys trailing Seattle 21-20 in an NFC Wild-Card Playoff Game, Parcells, "the nemesis of field goal kickers everywhere" according to Lewis, sent his kicker and his holder, quarterback Tony Romo, out to try a game-winning, could-not-be-shorter, 19-yard field goal.

The snap was perfect. But, according to ESPN's John Clayton, "the ball appeared to be right out of the factory box. Stadium lights shined off the surface. With a chill in the Seattle air, the ball was too slick for Romo to handle." As a result, the slipperly football slid through his hands, ruined the field goal attempt, and, after Romo was tackled as he tried to save the play, destroyed Parcell's last playoff game.

"I cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win," Romo said.

"We were in a position to win if we could just execute," Parcells said.

Nobody said: "If only Parcells had designed that field goal play differently."

Kickoffs/Punts

As explained under the Sixth Commandment, either the defense wins and takes a down or the offense wins and makes a first down. Kickoffs and punts turn the Sixth Commandment up-side down. On a kickoffs and punts, the offense chooses to give the defense a first down. Correspondingly, the defense does not have to do anything to take a down. Thus, these plays involve no design.

Much has been written about whether coaches should go for it on 4th down more than they do. The debate is nonsense. By itself, a coach's decision to go or not go tells us nothing about play design. Hence, the decision by itself is irrelevant to evaluating coaching. What 4th down tells us, independent of a coach's decision to go or not go, is that a coach's play designs failed on the previous 3 downs and the defense took all of those downs. In baseball, 3 strikes is an out. But in football, the coach gets a desperation down where his offense has to do something. As Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane said in Moneyball, "The day you say you have to do something, you're screwed." Thus, in reality, once it is fourth down, a coach has already failed no matter what he decides to do on the down.

Kickoff Returns and Punt Returns

Concedely, there is a little design in kickoff returns and punt returns. Depending on the direction of the kickoff, a coach might be able to set up a middle return behind a "wedge." Depending on the direction of the punt, a coach might be able to set up a sideline return behind a "wall."

However, the opposition can totally negate a coach's return design without any of its own design simply by booming a kickoff through the end zone or punting the football out of bounds. If Devin Hester is the punt return man, the punting out of bounds design is highly recommended. While punting out of bounds might result in good field position for the punt return team, the opposing coach chooses this strategy out of fear of the punt return player--such as Devin Hester or Johnny Rogers (Nebraska), or Desmond Howard--not out of fear that the returner's coach has cooked up a brilliant punt return design. Nobody punts out of bounds as a strategy because they fear the designs of a special teams coach.

NFL rules also tend to limit play design on kickoff returns and punt returns more than in any other area. For health and safety reasons, blocking rules are extremely restrictive. In 2009, for the first time, coaches will be limited to combining 2 players to form a "wedge" in front of a kick returner instead of an unlimited number.

In 1994, the NFL kickoff line was moved back to the 30-yard line in an attempt to reduce touchbacks on kickoffs. The introduction of the K-ball also drastically reduced touchbacks. In 1998, Berger led the NFL in touchbacks with 40. The next year, after the introduction of the K-ball, Berger's touchbacks fell to 13.

However, after Romo's fumbled snap was pinned on a brand new K-ball, the NFL amended its rules to permit equipment men from both teams a 20-minute period prior to games to rub down the balls to make them more manageable for snappers, holders, and kickers. Prior to the 2007 season, no punter had ever achieved a net average of 40 yards. In 2007, two players netted more than 40 yards per punt (Shane Lechler and Andy Lee). In 2008, four players netted 40 yards per punt (Lechler, Donnie Jones, Jeff Feagles, and Mike Scifres) and another netted 39.9 yards per punt (Sam Koch).

Also in 2008, Carolina Panthers' kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd recorded 30 touchbacks. The figure was the most in the NFL since the league introduced the K-ball in 1999.

For these reasons, kickoff returns and punt returns involve virtually no play design and coaching should be quantified independent of kickoff returns and punt returns.

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