Football 101, Lecture 6: When special teams are special
Tennessee head coach Robert Neyland – namesake for the famed Neyland Stadium – was such a strong believer in the special teams, he made it one of his game maxims. As he said: “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.”
A couple of recent, local reminders put this in focus. First, is the game changing play of Jaquavious Mackey in the Northwestern-South Pointe game this past Friday. South Pointe’s defense stymied the Northwestern offense for 3 quarters, until a Mackey punt return to the Stallion 1-yard line made for an easy score to put the Trojans up 20-0, and subsequently placed the game out of reach.
Second is the play of York High graduate Spencer Lanning, who two weeks ago was named the NFL’s special teams player of the week. Lanning – now a punter for the Cleveland Browns – became the first NFL punter in over forty years to punt, kick an extra point, and throw a touchdown pass in a single game.
For all the talk of “defenses winning championships” and prolific spread offenses scoring points in bunches, one can’t neglect the kicking game. Imagine this scenario, if you will. You have a kicker who can’t consistently make extra points. What does this really mean? Well, it means you will be going for 2-point conversions with regularity, which might not seem like such a bad idea until you read this: the success rate for two-point conversions is only about 47-percent, compared to 98-percent for extra point tries. If you score enough and go for enough two-point conversions, maybe you’re alright in the end, but it is a very risky and nerve-wracking part of a game.
Or consider this. Your kicker can’t drive the ball into the end zone for a touchback, giving their return man a chance at a return and putting a lot of pressure on your kick coverage team to make a stop, one of the most difficult (and dangerous) moments in football. After turnover differential, starting field position is one of the strongest indicators we have of team success. In other words, the closer one gets to their opponent’s end zone to start, the greater the likelihood to score points. It seems an obvious statistic, but one taken for granted.
So, the next time you are at a high school football game, don’t forget about the kickers, punters and other special teams players. After all, this is where – even in high school football — “the breaks are made”.