Bill Belichick goes deep on special teams and explains why he hates the extra point
|01.04.14 at 12:53 pm ET|
Bill Belichick is fond of reminding everyone who watches football that the outcome of many games is often determined by much more than the offense and defense.
In 1976, just two seasons into his NFL career, Belichick got one of his first big NFL assignments, serving as an assistant special teams coach for the Detroit Lions. He would serve the same role two seasons later for the Denver Broncos, in addition to becoming a defensive coaching assistant.
In 1979, Belichick began his 12-year stint with the New York Giants alongside head coach Ray Perkins as a defensive assistant and special teams coach.
So, whether it’s Jacoby Jones in the Super Bowl last year or the Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC championship game, Belichick knows full well many postseason games between evenly matched teams come down to the kicking game. Does he anticipate seeing more of the same things over the next few weeks?
“Who knows what the difference in a game in a close game is going to be. But certainly the kicking game is always an important part of every game and any close game, especially when you have points involved, which we have with the field goals but potentially in a return game or blocked kick or that type of thing,” Belichick began. “Those are kind of bonus points. I don’t think you ever go into the game thinking, ‘We’re going to get seven points from our punt return team or we’re going to get seven points from our kickoff coverage team to recover a fumble and run back for a touchdown.’
“Those are kind of bonus points you don’t really count on. You hope you get a couple of them over the course of the year but statistically that’s about what it’s going to be. So, a big play in that area is a huge play really because it’s like bonus points. I mean really I’ve always had a great appreciation for the kicking game. I think that I was fortunate when I grew up when Coach [Wayne] Hardin was the coach at Navy, he emphasized the kicking game a lot.
“Plays like the quick kick and some plays in the return game and so forth that kind of caught my eye as a kid and always sort of stayed interested in. I had an opportunity to coach it and I think it’s one of the great things about football is it brings that third element to the game besides offense and defense. It adds the kicking game, the specialists, all the different rules and strategical situations that can occur on kickoffs, punts and field goals and fakes and all those kind of things, field position plays. I think that’s an integral part of the game.
“Of course, back when the game was invented and even back into the, let’s say the ‘30s and the ‘40s, [Robert] Neyland at Tennessee and a lot of his disciples followed the old rule of thumb on field position: inside your 10, punt on first down, inside your 20, punt on second down, inside your 30, punt on third down. You didn’t punt on fourth down until you got the ball outside of the 40-yard line, until you got close to midfield. You played defense, you played field position. Of course, we see a lot less kicking now than we saw back then and of course we see the specialists now that we didn’t see back then too. So you had the Sammy Baughs of the world, or all the single-wing tailbacks for that matter, that were punters first, runners second and passers third.
“The game, I would say, has gradually taken the emphasis off of that part of the game but it’s still a significant part of the game. I personally would love to see the kicking game remain as a very integral part of the game so that the kickoffs are returned and so that extra points are not over 99 percent converted because that’s not what extra points were when they were initially put into the game back 80 years ago, whatever it was.”
Do he and Patriots special teams coach Scott O’Brien coach the right time is to take a risk on returns?
“I would say that the way that it is in the National Football League now, I would say for the most part if you have confidence in your returner and your kickoff return team, what’s the downside to bringing it out? They get you on the 15, they get you on the 16, wherever they get you. You don’t get back to the 20-yard line so you lose a couple yards of field position, whatever that’s going to be, three, four, five yards. But you get the opportunity to make a big play. You get an opportunity to get the ball to your returner and if you feel confident about your return team then that’s what you’re willing to risk. You’re willing to risk a couple yards of field position for an opportunity to return. The other thing I would say is a little bit overrated in my opinion is how the deep the ball is in the end zone.
“Everybody wants to talk about, ‘Well, it’s three yards deep, it’s four yards deep, it’s seven yards deep, it’s two yards deep.’ That’s true and that’s great but that doesn’t say anything about the amount of time the ball’s in the air. The hang time of the kick is, to me, more about than the depth of the kick. You put a ball nine yards deep in the end zone with 3.8 hang time, I don’t see any problem bringing that out. You put a ball one yard deep in the end zone with 4.5 hang time, that’s a whole different ballgame. Again, that’s where it comes into judgment by your returners, by your short returner who is helping your deep returner gauge how deep he is, how long the ball is in the air and again, how fast the coverage team is. Not all teams cover at quite the same rate. Some teams have faster guys, some guys have bigger guys: more linebacker, tight end, fullback types. Other teams have more DB, safety, corner types.
“I mean there are a lot of things that come into play there but I think that the general rule of bringing the ball out of the end zone or not is to me, is saying how deep it is in the end zone is missing 50 percent of the boat. I think that the hang time of the kick is as much, if not more, important than the depth of the kick. I would say to a certain extent also where the returner has to go to get the ball. It’s another thing for the returner to have to run sideways and handle the ball versus being able to catch the ball coming straight ahead, step into it and create his momentum back up the field, which again, a good returner can negate or pick up, I would say, some extra yardage there by his timing of the catch and his momentum going forward versus catching it over his shoulder, going sideways or going backwards or whatever it is then that’s just like added hang time.”
Belichick gave a history lesson this week on special teams that began with Tennessee’s Robert Neyland, the legendary college coach of the Volunteers in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. It was Neyland who came up with special rules for his teams on the right time to punt, including punting on first down.
“Inside your 10, sure,” Belichick said. “Absolutely. That was like Neyland’s rule. There was no decision. It was, you’re inside your 10, punt on first down and play defense. [You] wouldn’t take a chance on turning the ball over if you had bad field position. Again, it was a running game and there were less first downs but that was very ‘ and again, all of his disciples which were numerous, that yeah, I would say back in the ‘20s, ‘30s’¦and then you get the players like Don Hutson that, everybody talks about how great of a receiver he was, and he was, he was the first great receiver in the National Football League, he was a great kicker too. That was another important part of his job. Back in those days, you had to have a kicker, you had to have a punter and the punter was probably the most important position on a lot of teams. That kind of took priority over, like I said, passing or running for the single-wing tailbacks for us.
“I think it kind of evens out. Their punters are better, our punters are better; their kickers are better, our kickers are better. I think it’s all relative. But yeah, certainly there’s a lot more coaching technique, I’d say, sophistication in the kicking game than what there was 15, 20, 25 years ago, no question, or 35 years ago when I was coaching special teams. A lot of it is the same, but a lot of it is different. Some of the rules have affected it. Also just the evolution of seeing things work, seeing schemes evolve and for lack of a better word, copycatting them. As we’ve talked about before, when I came into the league, as an example, there was no spread punt. Nobody would spread and if they did, the first thing anybody would do was rush them. That was because the snappers weren’t involved in the protection so you were a guy short. Now every team’s snapper is involved in the protection.
“Every team spread punts, even against rushes. That really, I would say, started when [Steve] DeOssie went to Dallas and they did it with Steve. Other people saw it and found guys and started teaching it and got comfortable with it. That’s a scheme and a thing that’s involved ‘ I’m not saying that the snappers are that much better now than they were in the ‘70s or in the early ‘80s but once Steve and once that became ‘ Cardinals did it, there were two or three teams doing it ‘ once that was effective then everyone was looking at it saying, ‘We should be able to find somebody who can do that. Give us an opportunity to have two split guys and not get them held up from a tight position on the line of scrimmage.’ I think there are other things like that, other aspects of the game that have schematically evolved, just like we’ve seen on offense or defense whether it be blitz-zone schemes or multiple receiver sets and so forth and so on. That’s a little bit of an evolution and sophistication of the game.”
Belichick concluded his lesson by explaining why special teams and football could do without the extra point as it is currently.
“I would be in favor of not seeing it be an over 99 percent conversion rate,” Belichick said. “It’s virtually automatic. That’s just not the way the extra point was put into the game. It was an extra point that you actually had to execute and it was executed by players who were not specialists, they were position players. It was a lot harder for them to do. The Gino Cappellettis of the world and so forth and they were very good. It’s not like it is now where it’s well over 99 percent. I don’t think that’s really a very exciting play because it’s so automatic. I don’t know how much excitement there is for the fans in a touchback.
“It’s one thing if it’s a great kick, it’s another thing when, let’s just say for example, over half the kicks are out of the end zone, then I wouldn’t really say it’s a great kick. It’s kind of almost a normal part of the game. I personally would love to see those plays be the impact plays that they’ve been. As you mentioned, where would last year’s Super Bowl have been without the 108-yard kickoff return. The play that that added to the game was a spectacular play. I mean forget about who you’re rooting for, but just as a fan of the game, it was a spectacular play in the game that I think all fans ‘ unless you’re a 49er fan, but you know ‘ that all fans objectively love to see those plays as part of the game.”