A timeworn football maxim insists special teams are one third of the game.
That sure sounds important, yet they're so often blinked at.
In unrelated interviews last week, legendary punter Ray Guy rekindled the old argument that more special-teams players belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and taciturn New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick delivered a 500-word lecture on the subject.
A few days later, superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm blocking on an extra point in the fourth quarter and with the Patriots ahead by five touchdowns, sparking criticism against Belichick for using a prized player on an insignificant play.
The NFL, meanwhile, continues to devise ways to marginalize special teams. Whether for injury-litigation concerns or fan boredom, rule changes continually lessen the impact of special teams to the point Steve Tasker predicts kickoffs and extra points eventually will be abolished.
And there's a segment of the football community, including players, who don't consider special teams real football.
“I just play a different sport than all these guys,” Buffalo Bills kicker Rian Lindell said while trying to explain an embarrassing effort to stop Miami Dolphins return man Marcus Thigpen's 96-yard touchdown last week.
“Making that tackle would be as odd as if somebody threw me a basketball and told me to hit a three-pointer.”
Despite any special-teams stigma, the Bills enter this afternoon's game against the Indianapolis Colts with a 4-6 record bolstered by a pair of victories directly attributed to the kicking game.
The Bills failed to score an offensive touchdown against the Dolphins but won with a Leodis McKelvin punt return and four Lindell field goals. A blocked Arizona Cardinals field-goal attempt in Week Six forced overtime and allowed the Bills to win.
So what is the actual value of special teams in today's NFL?
There have been 21,025 plays from scrimmage this season, with 827 of them resulting in a touchdown or a safety. That's a score on 3.9 percent of all snaps.
There have been 3,166 kickoffs and punts, with 21 of them being returned for touchdowns. That's 0.7 percent of all kicks.
Bills special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven noted the data shows they're barely a fifth of a game's plays on a busy day. But when he worked under Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys, they came up with a couple remarkable stats.
“We always talked about hidden yardage, the starting point after kickoff and kickoff return or the net punting,” DeHaven said. “If you can come up with 100 yards difference in field position, normally that equates to about seven points.”
Parcells recalled that as of a few seasons ago, teams that scored a special-teams touchdown won 75 percent of the time.
But the Bills ranked first in special teams three times under coordinator Bobby April during their 12-year playoff drought. Special-teams dominance didn't get them far.
The difference between the NFL's best and worst kickers isn't nearly as vast as quarterbacks, left tackles, linebackers or cornerbacks. Whatever one special-teams unit can do so often is a push with the opponent.
It's enough to make a team tinker. The Bills this year drafted and released kickoff specialist John Potter and cut punter Brian Moorman in search of an edge.
“We look at kickoff-return start line as one of our big stats, and if you're averaging the 24 compared to the 21, that's from here to the garbage can,” Lindell said, pointing to a bin in the Bills' locker room. “But it's 20 spots in the rankings.”
Tasker, the Bills' seven-time Pro Bowler on special teams, made the argument special teams truly are a third of the game and not 16 to 21 percent as the play count indicates.
“One, it's the only play in football where you deliberately give the ball to your opponent,” Tasker said. “It's a changeover play, which is enormous in football. Possession is what you need, right?
“Two, it's also a play where 40 or 45 yards of field position will be given or taken. Ninety to 95 percent of field position is dictated by the kicking game. Three, on field goals or field-goal defense, you're going for points on this play.
“Those 20 percent of the snaps are one-time shots.”
Not so special
Sometimes, a special-teams play is weighted like an anchor.
Bills fans don't need to be told how unsettling it feels to watch a game decided not by an offensive or defensive player, but by a special-teams play.
Because of that, they won't feel sorry for how Parcells' coaching career ended. Scott Norwood's missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV gave Parcells his second championship with the New York Giants.
But the last game Parcells coached was with the Cowboys in the 2006 playoffs. Down by a point to the Seattle Seahawks with 79 seconds to play, Parcells (with DeHaven as his coordinator) sent out his field-goal unit for a 19-yard attempt. Extra points are 20 yards long.
Cowboys quarterback and holder Tony Romo fumbled the snap and was tackled.
“I don't think I'm getting over that one any time soon,” Parcells said by phone this week.
Infamous gaffes are seared into our memories and galvanize the stigma that special-teamers aren't to be taken as seriously as other football players.
Take, for instance, Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian. With the Dolphins on the verge of closing out their perfect 1972 season, Yepremian turned the Super Bowl into slapstick.
Rather than kick a field goal to give the 17-0 Dolphins a symbolic 17-0 lead late in the fourth quarter, his attempt was blocked. He gathered the ball and comically tried to throw it with hands “that aren't big enough to palm a tennis ball,” said Dolphins running back Jim Kiick. The ball slipped out, and Yepremian for some reason batted it like a volleyball.
Washington Redskins cornerback Mike Bass plucked the ball and ran right past a pacifistic Yepremian for a touchdown to put the game in sudden doubt.
“I was standing next to [Dolphins defensive tackle] Manny Fernandez,” Kiick said by phone this week, “and I heard him say, 'If we lose this game, we're just going to kill him.' They meant it. They were angry. It could've cost us the game.”
What if rugged Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka — also blocking on the right wing, the same place Gronkowski lines up, by the way — had cost the Dolphins the Super Bowl with a goal-line fumble? Would his teammates have wanted to kill him?
“Oh, I don't think so,” Kiick said with a laugh.
Special-teamers often aren't considered the genuine article. Kickers and punters aren't alone as quasi-outcasts (kicker Jan Stenerud is the only full-time special teamer in the Hall of Fame).
Coverage stars such as Tasker, Mark Pike, Blasdell native Ron Wolfley, Bill Bates, Bennie Thompson, Mosi Tatupu and Larry Izzo are on the fringe, too.
“I don't think any of us will see the inside of the Hall of Fame,” Tasker said, “because it's a play where most guys think 'If you're playing special teams it's because you're not good enough to get on the field otherwise.”
Parcells — a gridiron man's man if ever there was one — disagreed with the idea special-teamers don't belong in the Hall of Fame. He also shot down the notion he'd be able to handle the way his coaching career ended better had he lost on an end-zone interception.
“It's a football play,” Parcells said of the botched field goal, “and it shows you that everything in football's important, and everything can be game-affecting.”
Special teams have become more of a science over the past 30 years. Teams used to divvy up the various units among their position coaches. Now, many teams aid their special-teams coordinator with an assistant or a kicking specialist.
“Now it's to the point where everybody's coached well,” DeHaven said. “The margin for error is a lot slimmer. You've got to work your tail off just to break even. If you're not prepared, it will beat you.”
The NFL has been a special-teams antagonist. The competition committee routinely has tempered kick and coverage plays over the years.
“The rules changes over the past 20 years have been about making them go away and not be a factor,” Tasker said. “It all boils down to making those plays more antiseptic and less creative and takes away their potential impact in the game.”
To allay concerns over catastrophic injuries such as Bills tight end Kevin Everett's broken neck in 2007 and the proliferation of concussion lawsuits against the NFL, kickoffs were moved last year from the 30-yard line to the 35 to produce more touchbacks.
The NFL moved the kickoff spot back to the 30-yard line in 1994. The touchback rate dropped that year from 26.5 percent to 7 percent. It went up to 16.4 percent by 2010.
This year, 48 percent of kickoffs are touchbacks, leading many to wonder if the NFL would prefer to eliminate kickoffs eventually.
“It rounds out the game,” Lindell said. “You don't want to just start at the 25 at the beginning of the game. Then it's PE class.”
About 53 percent of all punts aren't returned, but that's mostly because punters have gotten so much better at directional and Australian-style punts, not because of rule adjustments.
Other rules changes that have softened special teams include field goals no longer winning an overtime game on the opening possession, no three-man wedges on kickoffs, at least two players must be outside the numbers on every kickoff, gunners can't run out of bounds on punt coverage and defensive penalties on touchdown plays being assessed on the kickoff to shorten the field.
“There's no question that the punt return or the kick return is the most exciting play in football,” Tasker said, “but you've got to go through six dozen of them to get a good one.”
As for extra points, Belichick has opined they're not good for the game because they “are non-plays.” Kiick suggested moving the spot back 10 yards to create some drama. Tasker proposed forcing teams to run an offensive play for the conversion.
“The rules around the league over the last 15, 20 years have slowly eroded that special-teams ability to make a difference,” Tasker said.
“Particularly in this day and age, when you see what looks like a great play on special teams it's because somebody on the other side has made an enormous or stupid mistake. That's the atmosphere in the league right now.”