By Robert Zeglinski
Since football’s inception in the late 19th century, it’s core plays have always come on special teams. Since the western game became an evolution of what those across either pond called “rugby” and “soccer”, it’s the third phase that has always been quietly prominent. It’s routinely taken a backseat to the stars on offense and defense – henceforth the invention of the moniker “both sides of the ball” – but has had just as much of an impact on NFL history as any Mr. Fantastic quarterback or Juggernaut linebacker. The third phase has been responsible for some of the most dynamic talents the league has ever seen, like former Bears great kick returner, Devin Hester, and perennial grey-beard kicker, Adam Vinatieri. A successful special teams play has the power to flip the story of a game in an instant in one fell swoop unlike any other instance.
The impact of special teams has been relatively diminished in recent years due to shifting rules. 36 kick returners had at least 20 attempts in 2006, Hester’s peak, compared to 12 in the 2018 season. It’s bound to get worse as the NFL moves toward of a functional, and safer, offensive-defensive game. But you can’t cut out a vestigial organ until it’s completely useless. It still serves a crucial function to its’ end, even if it’s overstaying its welcome. It can still harm you if you don’t take care of it. As far as the Bears are concerned, an improvement in special teams play is an imperative until further notice. It’s their Alpha, Beta, Omega, and even Theta, and Zeta. It may be the reason a historic franchise, with nothing but skeletons in the closet for decades, ends a 33-year drought next February. Or, it may act as the basis for continued despair.
For one of the most complete NFL teams on “both sides of the ball”, special teams is the Bears’ (necessary) bane of existence. It’s the most conspicuously and least predictable area of their roster where they have to take the most steps. Chicago’s kicking dilemma has dominated most of the discussion around their off-season. The ghosts of Cody Parkey aren’t fading away. The focus won’t shift to becoming more of a positive soapbox when September rolls around. The skepticism from a desperately anxious city won’t fade until the Bears have found a kicker who can manage to get the ball through the uprights without his other leg giving it a final boost—like the famed Anton Lubchenko. The same sentiment applies to an overall questionable unit that could use a change of scenery anywhere.
Whoever takes over at kicker: Robbie Gould is the easy answer to lean on when it comes to the Bears trusting a single-barred helmet player again. It’s understandable: he’s a franchise legend and having the franchise rectify a mistake that was made in hindsight is desirable. Kill two birds of nostalgic history and groveling in one. Get the job done, get out. That dream ignores how much the Bears would have to surrender in any trade acquiring the veteran’s services from San Francisco. 49ers general manager John Lynch would hold all the cards in this hypothetical scenario. He knows he’d have the Bears Ryan Pace in a vice of a compromised position of kicking distress. The Bears need reliability and consistency at kicker if they’re going to be lifting a Lombardi. Surrendering any amount of valuable mid-round draft picks to find their man shouldn’t be their route to good faith on a leg. There’s a little less than two months before the Bears start kicking journey with someone who will likely have the name of Elliot Fry or Eddy Pineiro. These are two unknowns with one carrying the weight of an entire unit on his shoulders. Godspeed to him.
Cordarelle Patterson: Tarik Cohen is the Bears’ Swiss Army Knife. The diminutive star is what gives the Bears a certain elasticity with his abilities that most other contenders don’t have. His running and receiving skills are what receive the most attention, but it’s his prolific attention to detail in spot duty as a punt returner that’s far more commendable. The Bears had the ninth-best punt return unit in DVOA last season. It was in no small part thanks to Cohen and his 12.5 yards a return Cohen, like any multifaceted tool, makes sure the Bears don’t have to worry about field position when their defense predictably forces a three-and-out. It’s their kick return unit, 31st in the NFL in DVOA last year, that presents a more significant hurdle to clear. While the prevalence of the kick return dies the farther kickers kick downfield, rule changes in the coming years will make the existence of a kick return obsolete. Until then, it would behoove teams like the Bears to at least not let a dying play ruin so much of their efforts. Fortunately, the aforementioned Patterson is the perfect man to give the Bears a dose of Hester nostalgia. If coordinator Chris Tabor and company can’t make it work with Patterson, all hope is lost.
Sherrick McManis (and friends): Take an all-encompassing look at the resume of the Bears’ 2018 special teams unit and you won’t probably won’t actively grimace at what they were able to accomplish. For the most part, they were competent enough not to make the Bears’ defense vulnerable, and gave the offense enough of a competent chance when it counted (thanks to Cohen). But competent over the course of an annual campaign, as opposed to when it matters is a dangerous comparison to make. You need both, not one or the other. In coverage in particular was one of the areas where Chicago most primarily struggled. The Bears’ 2018 kicking coverage was ranked 21st in DVOA. Their punt return coverage was ranked 24th in DVOA. Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, and Akiem Hicks are quite good at working with their backs against the wall. Special teams aces like McManis, the longest-tenured Bear, should keep the amount of work the Bears’ premier players do against the wall to a minimum.
Embracing the chaos
What makes special teams so divergent from offensive and defensive play is a sort of controlled destruction in its own bubble. A coach can plan out detailed blitz schemes designed to hone in on and slow down a home-run threat. And his plan, should he have the players to execute it, works out for the most part. The same goes for any play design that opens up routes for skill players to get open downfield. Football is oft-compared to chess for good reason. The resemblance to spontaneous and strategic decision-making on a grid is uncanny, as if it was meant to be almost identical in general application.
On special teams, one makes a plan and hopes it lasts long past the initial “boom” of a punt or kick. In most cases, it doesn’t. In most cases, it’s a gargle of 22 players mashing helmets together at full speed hoping for one magical opening or one last-ditch shoestring tackle. There’s no plan or grand design on special teams. A coach can set coverage lanes and drill in tenets of discipline with a trick play mixed in here and there, but special teams are unpredictable by their nature. The most telegraphed special teams plays are kicks of any kind and punts. But they’re only predictable until the ball is in the air, and even then it isn’t a guarantee the ball safely reaches the stratosphere. Everything that happens after a ball is in the air is, well, up in the air (double-doinks included). And everyone is at mercy to who does, or doesn’t, come out of the many scrums that occur when a group of 200-plus pound men ram into each other with reckless abandon.
The Bears do need to take more of an active role in improving every aspect of their special teams play. If it were not for the efforts of their most explosive and useful player, they would be among the worst at every core piece of the third phase. They would have one of the most unproven kickers, be it Fry or Pineiro. Their coverage units would be strangely out of whack despite increased roster depth meaning higher quality players should be featured. Somehow, they would make the kick return an outdated play before everyone else purely because of how second-rate they were at them.
At a certain point you have to embrace the chaos. Reports of an instituted “Augustana Silence” for the Bears’ kickers are not how to approach quality special teams play. Being on edge isn’t the way to attack the problem of a core concept so free-flowing. It’s a tense reaction to something needing far more fluidity and far more of a gentle touch. Thinking outside the box and loosening up is a necessity. The scars of minimal playoff past are not enough of a warranted reason to carry this stress into a new season with a new opportunity at winter glory. It’s over-reactionary at its best, and the definition of non-stated insecurity at its worst. In every situation, it has the potential to sink a year’s work down the drain in the amount of time it takes a football to slowly two goalposts and fall harmlessly to the turf.
The equation for the Bears solving their special teams conundrum is simple. Relaxing on the reins, plus letting the chess pieces play as they lie, equals success. In other words, one can’t direct these volatile chess pieces. You can only hope they’re in the right place as this strategy game takes its own wild turns.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.