I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly a sexy area in which to begin. But the importance of special teams is more than just a cliche for Sunday morning talking heads. Beyond the obvious importance of converting field goals, special teams play factors into numerous other areas of the game. Field position is actually important; I know it’s hard to believe having watched the Bears give up chunks of yards on first down running plays, but teams do sometimes successfully pin other teams deep in their own territory and then keep them there. And having watched Devin Hester for his entire career, it’s obvious what a difference a dynamic return man can make.
I think it’s safe to say that the Bears special teams took a step back this year. Longtime special teams coordinator Dave Toub left for the Chiefs, and he was replaced by former Cowboys special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. (I’ll always remember Toub fondly. Not only did his units block and tackle with discipline, but he designed perhaps the greatest trick return play of all time; the fact that it was overruled by a fairly bogus penalty still irritates me. As does the fact that he used it in that situation, as opposed to saving it for a situation in which a return might win a game outright. As does Joe Buck totally no-selling one of the coolest football plays I’ve ever seen. But I digress.)
I don’t think DeCamillis is a poor coach, I just think the injury bug that bit the Bears defense had a trickle-down effect, as special teams stalwarts were forced into more full-time defensive action, (Jon Bostic strikes me as a player who could have been a big-hitter on special teams) and lesser players were forced into special teams duties. There were a few bright spots, including Devin Hester racking up his biggest return yardage total since his masterful 2007 season (more on him later.) But there were a few obvious negatives, including the play of the first player I’ll spotlight in this series.
Adam Podlesh, P
To put it mildly, it was a rough year for Adam. His punting average was a meager 40.6 yards, which ranked last out of 33 qualified punters on ESPN’s database. His net average of 37.9 ranked just 29th. I know I mentioned in the preview piece that a lot of football stats are context dependent; how far the punter can boot the ball isn’t really one of those stats, and it’s also one of the most important measures for a punter. To Adam’s credit, he recorded only two touchbacks, one of the lowest totals in the league, while ranking in the middle of the pack for punts inside the twenty yard line. He also ranked 6th in return yards against, which can be seen as a credit to the Bears coverage units and Podlesh’s directional kicking abilities, or it could be seen as a sign that he was shanking kicks out of bounds or getting such pitiful distance that opposing returners had no chance to run before the coverage was on top of them. Indeed, Podlesh’s punts resulted in 25 fair catches, tied for third-most in the NFL.
According to Spotrac, Podlesh will count $1.825 million against the cap next season, with $800,000 in dead money. Meaning, if I understand the cap rules correctly, that the Bears could cut him and save about $1 million in cap room; that might be enough to sign a new punter, who by definition could not have a worse leg than Podlesh. (Last place is last place.) In fact, the Bears already signed a potential training camp competitor in Drew Butler. I think the writing is on the wall for Podlesh, and I’d be very surprised if the Bears didn’t look to improve the position.
Robbie Gould, K
This debate might have been more interesting had Gould hit free agency, but as you’re all probably aware, he instead signed a contract that will keep him in Chicago for the foreseeable future. Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the league, and he plays his home games in a relatively unfriendly (and occasionally downright hostile) kicking environment. This year was a bit of a reestablishment campaign for Robbie, who actually missed three games at the end of 2012 with a leg injury. (Remember Olindo Mare kicking for the Bears? That served as a nice reminder for me that it’s a luxury to be fully confident in your favorite team’s kicker. If you need another reminder, just think of Paul Edinger turning his back to the goalposts.) And of course, beyond the recovery, it was a contract year as well.
He responded well, going 26 for 29, with two of those misses happening in one game, the road loss to Minnesota. One of them was an end of regulation attempt from 65 yards (which would have been the longest kick in NFL history), the other a fateful overtime miss from 47. (Hey, did you know the Bears tried it on second down? That’s a story I feel went way too far under the radar.) If my math is correct, that means he missed just once over the remaining 15 games. That kind of reliability, and a proven ability to kick successfully at Soldier Field, motivated the Bears to give Gould his new contract. It’s a pricey move, but it’s one I applaud. He’s a great player, and should remain effective throughout the course of his deal.
Patrick Mannelly, LS
If you want to impress your friends (or annoy them beyond belief; it really depends on the type of friends you have) see if they know which player has played the most games as a Bear. The answer? Patrick Mannelly, who has been the team’s long snapper since 1998. (He also holds the record for most seasons as a Bear.) Mannelly is 38, and I won’t pretend to have charted all the long snaps this season. But what I can say is that I don’t recall a bad one, which is always a good sign. In fact, the only time I ever remember thinking of Mannelly in a negative light is when he checked to an ill-advised fake punt against the Packers in 2009, and even that wasn’t really his fault.
If Mannelly wants to return and the Bears think he can still do the job, I see no reason not to let him. Long snapper strikes me as a position that is very easy to take for granted. But if you have a sub-par player at the position, it can really damage your team. (Nothing ruins a game-winning or game-tying field goal faster than a bad snap.)
And there you have the first group reviewed. Next up is the return man, Devin Hester; he was originally part of this post, but his section grew too unwieldy to include here, so he gets his own spotlight tomorrow.