Colts special teams have long struggled
Nov. 6, 2011 |
Colts special teams players attempt to block a second-half field goal last Sunday against the Titans. The Colts rank 32nd in the NFL in kickoff returns (averaging 18.4 yards), 32nd in punt returns (3.5), 31st in kick coverage (32.6) and 29th in punt coverage (15.2).
Winless and with no margin for error, the Indianapolis Colts can only hope they don't spend today playing uphill when they meet the Atlanta Falcons at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It happened last week at Tennessee. Special teams killed them.
The Colts' first four returns featured poor judgment, bad blocking, a fumble and three holding penalties. As a result, they started those possessions at their 8-, 12-, 13- and 7-yard lines.
They allowed a 26-yard punt return that wasn't longer only because punter Pat McAfee made the tackle. They had one punt nearly blocked and another blocked in their end zone for a Tennessee touchdown.
It was a month's worth of breakdowns. It all happened during the game's first 20 minutes.
Substandard return and coverage teams are becoming a Colts tradition, but they have dipped to historic depths this season. The Colts rank 32nd in the NFL in kickoff returns (averaging 18.4 yards), 32nd in punt returns (3.5), 31st in kick coverage (32.6) and 29th in punt coverage (15.2).
"There's no magic bullet to it," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said, "so we've just got to keep trying to get better."
It's only midseason, but three of those four averages, if not improved, would be the worst in club history. Only the 18.4-yard kick return number has precedent in the franchise's 59 seasons of NFL membership: 17.9 yards in 1982 and 18.3 in 1990.
"We've just got to do better," said kick returner Joe Lefeged, a core special teams player. "The whole unit. Everybody. We've all got to do a better job."
From 1999-2010, the Colts had the NFL's best regular-season record (138-54), a record seven consecutive 12-victory seasons, 11 playoff appearances, two Super Bowls and the 2006 NFL championship.
The lone areas that stubbornly defied sustained improvement were special teams coverage and returns. Through three head coaches and special teams coordinators -- Jim Mora and Kevin Spencer, 1998-2001; Tony Dungy and Russ Purnell, 2002-08; Caldwell and Ray Rychleski, 2009-present -- they have remained largely substandard.
Those four categories over 13 years, 1999-present, afford a total of 52 annual rankings. Six have been among the league's top 10. Thirty have been among the bottom 10. The Colts have yielded 16 touchdowns on kick and punt returns. They have scored nine, one on an onside kick.
So persistent a problem would seem to be systemic.
Two years after leaving the Colts for Pittsburgh, Spencer's peers voted him NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year. The Steelers ranked fifth in punt returns, third in punt coverage and eighth in kick coverage. Spencer now is with Arizona, which is first in punt returns, ninth in kick returns and 12th in kick coverage.
Purnell has been with Jacksonville since leaving the Colts. His return and coverage units were among the league's best in 2010 but have struggled this season.
Coaches can only coach the players they are given.
Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and vice president/general manager Chris Polian refused to be interviewed. They also refused to make Rychleski available, but Dungy pointed to the Colts' salary cap structure as the basis of its special teams shortcomings. Ten players account for about $73 million of the allotted $120 million cap.
"When you have a lot of money paid out to a few players, which they do, you have to make that up somewhere," Dungy said. "Traditionally, it's been made up with the younger guys. So you develop some pretty good special teams players, but after two or three years, you have to turn them over. Then the new guys come in and learn on the run.
"I always felt (coverage and returns) should be one of our edges and it never was."
By way of example, eight of the 11 players on both the Colts kickoff and kickoff return teams at Tennessee were in their first or second NFL seasons. Most earn salaries at or near league minimums, but Caldwell denied the inability to retain veteran special teams players is an issue.
"I can't make excuses about anything," he said. "It doesn't hinder us, first and foremost. Our model is our model and we have to be able to win regardless and perform well in those areas, which we're fully capable of."
It must be said that whatever the impact of the Colts' model on special teams, it has produced success almost every team in the league envies.
Different teams take different approaches.
The Colts use few veteran starters on special teams. New England uses players like wide receiver Wes Welker, who leads the league in receptions, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who leads the team in rushing, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich, cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Patrick Chung.
The Colts have first-rate specialists in kicker Adam Vinatieri, long-snapper Justin Snow and McAfee, who handles kickoffs as well as punts. One wonders where they would be without McAfee.
Twenty-two of his 32 kickoffs have been touchbacks. They reduce opponents' flagrant 32.6-yard return average to an eminently acceptable drive-start average of the 21.8-yard line.
McAfee also shares the team lead in special teams tackles with Stevie Brown. McAfee's five tackles have come on kickoff returns of 46 and 52 yards and punt returns of 37, 33 and 26 yards. Any of them might have been broken for touchdowns.
The Colts have had a field goal attempt and a punt blocked in their past three games, and theirs is a curious approach to kickoff returns.
Lefeged has brought nine kicks out of the end zone. He got beyond the 16 with three, as far as the 20 with two and reached the 25 once. Why, one wonders, if the Colts are so consistently incapable of opening a crease, don't they instruct him to down kicks in the end zone? Why not eliminate the risk of a fumble, minimize the likelihood of penalty and take the ball at the 20?
They would rather, it seems, play uphill.