We all know that the Colts' special teams was really bad. As in, close-your-eyes-and-hope-the-other-team-doesn't-score bad.
As much potential as I think Joe Lefeged may have as a depth player in the defensive backfield, he made me cringe more consistently than any other player I've seen in the Manning era (during his kick/punt returns). More than Keyunta Dawson, more than Tim Jennings, even more than Gijon Robinson.
The Colts were all bad in 2011. It was a doomed season as soon as we knew Peyton Manning was going to miss the majority of it. Even still, the special teams was a uniquely frustrating kind of bad. Yet, even with the special teams struggles, there were positives as well.
The Few. The Proud. The Bright Spots
Pat McAfee was one of the few spots of excellence on the Colts last season, and many fans thought he may have deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl. While I wouldn't take it quite that far yet, McAfee did have a very good year, and one to build on for the future. As a fan favorite and a solid punter and kickoff specialist, McAfee definitely has a place in the Colts' future.
First, McAfee was a pretty darn good punter this year, in a year where his punts came a lot more often than we're used to seeing them.
- According to ProFootballFocus' grading systems, where grades are given on each play, Pat McAfee was the 6th most effective punter in the league. (Tied for 26th last year)
- McAfee's average of 46.6 yards per punt was tied for 8th in the league. (Was 25th in the league last year with 41.6)
- Despite having one of the worst coverage teams in the leage, McAfee tied with Mike Scifres for 10th with a Net Average of 39.7 yards (27th last year with 35.0).
McAfee also gave the Colts a boost in the kickoff department:
- Patty Mac averaged 68.8 yards per kickoff, 8th in the league, and 1.4 yards longer than 2010.
- The Colts' opponents' average start on kickoffs was the 21.2 yardline (tied for 8th in the league), despite that terrible coverage team.
- McAfee's kickoffs were returned just 30.2% of the time, second in the league. This was the biggest reason why the average start was so low for opponents.
McAfee also led the team in special teams tackles, and led the league in "Return Saves," tackles that save a touchdown (measured if a kick return is returned past the 50, or a punt return goes 20 yards or more).
Adam Vinatieri is the other bright spot for the Colts, but he doesn't warrant nearly as much space as McAfee does for his brilliant work in 2011. While Vinatieri was usually reliable (inside a reasonable distance), his age is showing. Vinatieri made his field goals at an 85.4% clip this year (12th in the league), but that's down from 92.9 last year (2nd in the league). Of course, he was asked to take more 50+ yarders this season (Three in 2011, zero in 2010), but he made 2-3 of them.
You Ain't Got No Alibi. You Ugly.
This whole article was inspired by the link above, a post that Football Outsiders posted yesterday about the league leaders in special teams tackles. As I mentioned earlier, they list Pat McAfee as the Colts' team leader, and while that didn't surprise me, it was still disheartening.
The Colts' entire special teams coverage unit, the special teams coaches, and anybody who was remotely connected to the Colts kickoff coverage all deserve to be run out of town after last year. The coverage was simply awful.
Not only was McAfee the team leader in special teams tackles, but he was the leader with just seven tackles. That high was the lowest of all 32 teams, and only four other teams had their leader in the single digits (and two of those had multiple players tied for their team lead). According to one count, there were over 100 players in the league with at least eight special teams tackles, and the Colts had exactly zero of them on their roster.
There's not a whole lot left to say about this. It was just bad.
The Ashamedly Awful
Most of the time, teams hope that they don't get a touchback, since nearly the average return nets more than 20 yards. If Joe Lefeged would have taken a touchback on all of his returns, the Colts would have actually been in better shape. Lefeged was the only kick returner with more than 15 returns with a less than 20 yard per return average (18.6). I lost track of how many times I yelled at the TV because Lefeged took it out of the endzone when he shouldn't have, and by the end of the season I just prayed that it would fly over his head.
Pro Football Focus gave Lefeged a -7.5 grade for the season (in returning), by far the worst in the league (next worse was -3.2). His long for the year was 32 yards, good enough to tie for 57th in the league. The few times he returned punts wasn't any better, as his 7.1 average was among the league's worst among regular punt returners.
Of course, it cannot all be blamed on the rookie. The Colts' blocking on special teams was horrendous, and none of their returners have even had the opportunity for much success over the past few years.
Nevertheless, Lefeged was notably bad at returning kicks. He was slow, non-committal, and had poor judgment. I'd say he was a pretty good summary of the Colts special teams coverage/kickoff teams in general.
All in all, special teams isn't that important. Still, when it's that bad, something needs to change, and hopefully the new regime will take the steps to fix that.
"As much potential as I think Joe Lefeged may have as a depth player in the defensive backfield, he made me cringe more consistently than any other player I've seen in the Manning era "
Have you forgotten about Gilbert Gardener, or just mentally blocked him out thanks to therapy? (My therapy didn't take.)
You know your special teams are bad when you always root for touchbacks regardless of which team is kicking.
Yeah, when your gunners are so bad that your *punter* leads in tackles, there's something wrong. Really, really wrong.
This is one of those areas of football stats that just kill me. Special teams does not directly correlate with winning (according to FO), yet it determines offensive and defensive field positions. It was pointed out in the "clutch" series that Manning's poor field position directly effected his success rate. I think it's a logical conclusion to draw that if Manning's success rate in the playoffs were higher, the Colts might have won more playoff games.
I will grant you that reaching in the draft or over spending for a return guy is not the smartest way to handle your money or a draft pick. Still, solid coaching and scheme don't cost draft picks or millions of dollars, and the Colts have been lacking just that for years. Polian refused to place any importance on ST at all (beyond signing good kickers) and his teams still won and won. I get that. And Manning delivered him (along with the rest of us)... most of the time.
@naptown_ninja ding, ding, ding, ding... great point. ST is a complementary part of the game. A strong offense/defense is going to negate poor ST. However good ST play is going to enhance the opportunities for success by improving field position (and also help w/ momentum and crowd control). Though the flip side from Polian's philosophy is that he paid the marquee players so much it made it difficult to gain veteran talent, not to mention the injury issues. Leaving ST play to 1st and 2nd year players or guys who were on the practice squad weeks earlier. Not to glorify ST but there's something to experience and practicing as a cohesive team.
@naptown_ninja I think coaching and scheme are the most important things. Maybe have one special teams guy that excels at getting tackles, but really special teams doesn't have to be a big investment.
@Kyle Rodriguez @naptown_ninja I think the blame for bad special teams has to go much more to Caldwell than Polian. Aside from the three specialists, your special team players are going to be your offensive and defensive back-ups. They're on your team because they're the 4th WR or the 3rd OLB. Most teams are going to have pretty similar talent level at those spots because if someone else's third string is better than your second string, you sign those third stringers when they get cut. Special team ability on most teams is a tie breaker to see which marginal players get to stick around. Occasionally you get someone who sticks because they're especially good on special teams, but Polian did pick up a few of those guys - think Taj Smith or Aaron Fransisco. He also brought it some late round picks and free agents who were supposed to be good return men. But they didn't pan out. Polian also made sure we had good people at the specialist positions - think how much worse our return game would have been if he'd tried out UFA's instead of drafting McAfee.
What does make a big difference is the emphasis that the HC puts on special teams. How much practice time do they get? How many players are off-limits to the special teams because of their value on O or D? When you're making roster recommendations, how important is special teams ability to your evaluation? I don't get the impression that those things were a particularly high priority during the Caldwell era.
Alls I'm sayin is that I'd like to see special teams elevated slightly from "not that important". Special teams may not directly lead to victories, but with this team, punt and kick coverage have a long history of letting inferior opponents stay in the game, and keeping our offense behind the 8-ball.... or losing a goddamnsuperbowl