It's been statistically proven that out of the 162 Major League baseball games that make up a full season of play, every team will win at least 60 games and lose at least 60 games. In other words, the worst team will still manage to win 60 games, and the best team will still manage to lose 60. It's what happens with the other 42 that makes or breaks a season.
The first time I read this idea when I was just a young boy it was delivered as a joke, but I can’t remember the exact wording of the punch line. It was something like, "Well, if you tell me which 42 games those are, I’ll play my best in those games."
Yeah… like I said, I can’t remember the exact punch line, but it was really funny when I read it.
Anyway, I imagine you’re wondering what it’s got to do with this article.
Well, we all know that there are three phases of a football game: offense, defense and special teams. Analysts and fans spend a lot of time focusing on two of those elements, but special teams play is often ignored completely unless there is a spectacularly good or bad play near the end of the game that directly affects the outcome.
Of course, as Redskins fans, we had to suffer some incredibly poor special teams play in 2013. A recent article from CSN Mid-Atlantic put it this way:
The Redskins’ special teams hit rock bottom in 2013.
They went from historically awful that year to just bad in 2014. Last year the units took a leap into the top 10 in the NFL according to the numbers crunchers at Football Outsiders.
I find it hard to agree with Football Outsiders. While I agree that the special teams play improved in 2015, I just don’t think it was good enough for any Redskins player, coach or fan to be satisfied.
Special teams are on the field for basically three types of plays:
• Extra-point kicks
And, while the ST units need to play both sides of the ball, paid analysts and journalists often focus only on the return game when discussing special teams. For example, here’s how Rich Tandler described the special teams play in 2015:
[The Redskins special teams] averaged 4.8 yards per punt return (31st in the NFL), which you can gain by stumbling a few steps and then falling on your face. Their kickoff returns were better at 25.0-yard average (10th) but besides a couple of long touchdown returns in losses there was no consistent impact.
But special teams performance consists of a lot more than just return yardage. The majority of offensive drives begin and end with a special teams play, and each of those plays has the potential to be good, bad, or merely pedestrian.
When you look at special teams performance in most NFL games, it’s a lot like the description of a baseball season at the top of this article: only a few plays separate the performance of the two special teams units involved in the game. More than half the kickoffs will result in a touchback. Most kick returns end up somewhere between the 15 and 25 yard lines. Both kickers will make all or nearly all of their extra point attempts. The punters for the two teams are likely to have a pretty similar average for yards-per-punt, and the same is likely to be true of the returners. Blocked field goals and punts are spectacular game changers, but they’re pretty infrequent occurrences. The same is true when it comes to returns for touchdowns.
The fact is, special teams play is pretty predictable most of the time. For a special teams unit to really impact a game – positively or negatively – it has to do something special. One or two spectacular plays on special teams can define a good unit; several can put them at the top of the league. Likewise, gaffes such as blocked punts or field goals, fumbles on returns or missed extra points demonstrate a lack of skill, execution or just plain poor coaching. In the end, just a handful of plays across a 16-game season separates the really good special teams units from all the rest.
The key then, is for special teams to make more big plays than their opponents do and to avoid the gaffes. When analyzing the season-long performance of a special teams unit, I think it is useful to ignore the vast majority of special teams plays that are merely pedestrian. Kickoffs for touchbacks, 48-yard punts resulting in a fair catch and successful extra-point attempts don’t matter to this analysis; only the exceptional plays get counted.
I haven’t made a study of it, but I intuitively believe that if you counted up the number of good plays a ST unit makes in a season, and the number of gaffes it commits, most teams would end up with a ratio close to 1:1.
I call this the good:gaffe ratio (GGR). The number of significantly positive (good) plays made by the special teams unit, compared to the number of blunders or gaffes it suffers. The bigger the number, the better the unit, and – in my view – any result worse than 1:1 should be considered unacceptable.
So, what are "good" plays?
- Recovering an onside kick
- Recovering a fumble in coverage
- Blocking a punt, field goal or extra point attempt
- Returning a kickoff or punt for a touchdown, or breaking a long return
- Making a long-yardage field goal or "clutch" field goal (typically at the end of a half)
- A punt that changes field position by more than 55 yards
- Pinning an opponent close to their own goal line with a punt
- A successful fake punt that results in a first down or touchdown
- Scoring in any way while playing defense on PATs or punt return team
And then there are the gaffes:
- Giving up an onside kick recovery to your opponent when they kick off
- Losing a fumble or muffed punt
- Having a punt, field goal or extra point blocked
- Shanking a punt
- Missing an extra point or field goal attempt of less than 55 yards
- Allowing the opponent to return a kickoff or punt for a touchdown, or break a long run
- Getting flagged for a personal foul (15-yard penalty) on kickoffs or punts, whether kicking or returning
- Giving up points in any way as the kicking team during PATs or punt plays
Note that a good play by the opposing team (ie. Downing a punt near the Redskins goal line) is not counted as a ‘gaffe’ by the Redskins special teams, and a bad play by the other team (ie. Missing a field goal) is not counted as a ‘good’ play for our squad. Likewise, personal fouls called on the opponents do not count as ‘good’ plays by the Redskins.
It may be a surprise to learn that the good:gaffe ratio isn’t a good predictor of the outcome of games. While an exceptionally good or bad special teams play at a crucial time can decide a game, most of the time the offense & defense have the greatest effect on the final score. To illustrate, the Redskins special teams ran back two returns for touchdowns in 2015 – and lost both games.
Still, I think the GGR is useful in assessing the overall performance of the special teams unit, and I think that the good:gaffe ratio, when applied to the Redskins 2015 special teams, will show that Ben Kotwica’s unit has a long way to go in 2016 before any of us can be happy with their contribution to the team.
Let’s run through last season's 16-game schedule and see what the ratio says.
Game 1 – Miami Dolphins Ratio = 0:2
1st quarter (00:32) – Forbath misses 46 yard field goal
4th quarter (10:38) – Landry returns a Tress Way punt 69 yards for the game-winning TD
Game 2 – St. Louis Rams Ratio = 0:1
2nd quarter (00:29) – Tress Way shanks a punt for 18 yards to the Was 45 yard line
Game 3 -- @ NY Giants Ratio = 1:2
4th quarter (03:29) – Rashad Ross returns kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown
1st quarter (12:53) – Tress Way punt blocked through the back of the end zone for a safety
2nd quarter (11:36) – Hopkins kicks off for a touchback, but J Johnson called for unnecessary roughness – 15 yard penalty. Ball placed at the 35
(The Redskins also had two failed onside kick attempts in this game)
Game 4 – Philadelphia Eagles Ratio = 0:2
(Eagles missed a 33 yard FG in the second quarter & PAT in 3rd quarter)
2nd quarter (02:30) – Way punts for 41 yards; Sproles returns the ball 45 yards to the Was 30
3rd quarter (10:01) – Tress Way punts 42 yards, Sproles fair catch. Dunbar penalized 15 yards for unnecessary roughness
Game 5 -- @Atlanta Falcons Ratio = 1:2
4th quarter (00:05) – Hopkins hits 52-yard FG to tie the game
(Falcons missed a 38 yard FG in the 2nd quarter and a 48 yard FG in the 3rd quarter)
2nd quarter (01:51) – Way punts 42 yards (net), D Everett flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct – 15 yards; ball spotted on Was 45 yard line
3rd quarter (06:46) – Hopkins missed 53 yard FG (wide right)
Game 6 -- @NY Jets Ratio = 2:1
2nd quarter (02:22) – Hopkins hits 54-yard FG
(Nick Folk missed a FG in the 4th quarter)
4th quarter (04:04) – Redskins block Jets punt, recovered by R Ross in end zone for TD
4th quarter (13:55) – Way punts 49 yards, but Redskins give up 22 yard return to NYJ 49 yard line
(Redskins onside kick failed in 4th quarter)
Game 7 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers Ratio = 0:0
Game 8 -- @NE Patriots Ratio = 0:1
1st quarter (09:06) – Patriots successfully execute onside kick to create back-to-back possessions to start the game
(Redskins failed on an onside kick attempt late in the 4th quarter)
Game 9 – New Orleans Saints Ratio = 0:0
Game 10 - @Carolina Panthers Ratio 3:0
1st quarter (00:47) – Andre Roberts returns the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown
4th quarter (02:34) – Tress Way booms a punt 56 yards, downed at the Carolina 4 yard line
4th quarter (00:26) – Carolina punter tackled in the end zone for a safety [2 points]
Game 11 – NY Giants Ratio = 1:1
1st quarter (10:48) – Tress Way punt downed at the NYG 6 yard line
1st quarter (7:07) – Hopkins 51-yard FG attempt is blocked
Game 12 – Dallas Cowboys Ratio = 3:3
1st quarter (11:17) – Tress Way punt downed at Dal 5 yard line
2nd quarter (00:01) – Hopkins makes a 45-yard FG to end the half
4th quarter (00:19) – Rashad Ross returns kickoff 41 yards. (As a bonus, Dal is penalized 15 yards for facemask)
4th quarter (07:29) – Hopkins misses a 43-yard FG wide right
4th quarter (01:47) – Desean Jackson fumbles punt return and Dallas recovers
4th quarter (00:49) – Redskins give up a 46 yard kickoff return to Lucky Whitehead
Game 13 - @Chicago Bears Ratio = 0:0
(Chicago missed a 4th quarter field goal attempt)
Game 14 – Buffalo Bills Ratio = 0:1
2nd quarter (07:09) – Crowder muffs a punt; recovered by Buffalo
Game 15 - @Philadelphia Eagles Ratio = 0:1
3rd quarter (07:03) – Eagles return kickoff 49 yards to the Was 48 yard line
Game 16 - @Dallas Cowboys Ratio = 1:0
1st quarter (10:56) – Tress Way punts to the Dallas 7 yard line
After reviewing all 16 regular season games from last year, and noting the good plays and the gaffes, I come up with a season-long GGR of 12:17, which indicates that the Redskins special teams unit is making too many poor plays, and not enough positive game changers.
I confess that I compiled these numbers by scanning game logs from 16 games. It’s certainly possible that I overlooked some significant plays, but I feel pretty strongly that the overall message is correct. The Redskins special teams was horrible in 2013, and still bad in 2014. Last year’s performance seemed good by comparison – especially because our kicker was reliable on field goals and almost automatic on touchbacks, and our punter was consistent. The coverage teams didn’t give up any returns for TD, and for the most part covered in the kicking game very competently. Dustin Hopkins appears to be one of the very best at onside kicks, and – the New England game aside – the return team handled onside kicks competently. But the ST unit isn’t distinguishing itself as a top unit in the league.
As a final note, I want to mention the lack of a consistent punt return game. Along with a lot of other fans, I was pleased when Jamison Crowder was drafted with a punt return pedigree. Reading through the game logs, however, was a depressing experience with regard to his accomplishments as a returner. Far too many of Crowder's returns are for negative yardage, and he just doesn’t seem to have the "north-south" instinct, preferring to try to outrun coverage by going "east-west" but rarely making it work. Establishing consistency in the punt return game by getting up field with the ball would be the single biggest improvement I’d like to see in special teams in 2016.