During these recent OTAs, the 49ers’ coaching staff put together cut-ups of the best and worst of the team’s special-teams plays from 2009. As Scott McKillop said: “We saw some of the things we did effectively, some of the things that we didn’t. And just constructive criticism.”
Can you guess what showed up on the WORST disk? Here are some hints: Andy Lee led the NFC with a punting average of 47.6 yards. Kicker Joe Nedney was 17 of 21 on field-goal attempts. The kickoff coverage was tight (21.8 yards, 10th in the NFL). The punt coverage was mediocre (8.7 yards, 19th).
So yeah, if you guessed returns, you know this team. The 49ers were pretty bad at kickoff returns (21.8 yards, 23rd) and downright putrid at punt returns (4.4 yards, 32nd).
Coach Mike Singletary is determined not to let that happen again. Quietly and otherwise, he has made special teams an area of major emphasis in 2010.
To appease the coach, the 49ers have brought in some new bodies. Among them are return candidates Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams and LeRoy Vann. Ginn is a fourth-year NFL veteran. Williams and Vann are rookies. All of them have straight-line speed and shiftiness, and one them, it is hoped, will emerge to make the return game more explosive.
“When you have a guy as talented as Teddy G on your team, how do (opponents) prepare for him?” special-teams standout Michael Robinson said today. “You can’t prepare for the speed at which he runs. You can’t prepare for the speed at which we do things on special teams. So it can make a big difference, a very big difference.”
Of course, the poor returns of 2009 can’t fully be blamed on return men like Arnaz Battle, Allen Rossum and Robinson. The blocking ahead of them was substandard. But the other new character in the story, special teams coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer, isn’t making wholesale changes in the scheme.
“I think he and (special teams assistant) Dave Fipp have really done a good job,” Singletary said today. “I’m really thankful that Dave is here to assist and to help talk about some of things, that Schottenheimer’s philosophy and some of the philosophy that we have from last year, that maybe we don’t have to change all of it. Some of it you can keep.”
Schottenheimer has coached in the NFL for 22 years; his first eight were in special teams.
“He’s all about getting it done,” Robinson said. “Again, he’s putting the best players in the positions to make an impact. He even talked about some of the guys on defense who pass rush. If they’re our best punt blockers, they’re gonna be on the punt-return unit.”
That’s a big part of Singletary’s commitment to special teams – a willingness to use star players in the kicking game. That could include linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, strong rushers on kicks, or Ginn, who should also see time at wide receiver.
“Before, I think it was something they wouldn’t leap at,” Robinson said. “Now that Coach Singletary really embodies that family atmosphere, stresses that we’re one team – not offense, defense, special teams; we’re one team – guys understand how important it is. You know, guys understand that you can get in there and make the key block that gets the returner down the sideline, or block the punt that gives us a safety and we win by one.”
But the emphasis doesn’t end there. Singletary said today that he might hold three or four roster spots for core special-teams players, even if they don’t contribute much on offense or defense.
“Our philosophy is we don’t want anybody on this team that is just kind of sitting around and holding a bag,” Singletary said. “Everybody’s going to have to contribute. There will be some guys that make this team, and right now, maybe they’re not quite where they need to be, the No. 2 guy or whatever. If they’re busting their tail on special teams and they can help us win, that’s important.”
That could include the likes of McKillop, who was in for virtually every special-teams play a year ago.
“It’s just as important as offense and defense,” McKillop said. “There’s three phases of a football game, and usually the teams that win two out of three end up winning. And I can definitely feel the more responsibilities placed, because Coach Singletary is more involved in special teams.”
McKillop would love to get more playing time at linebacker this year, but will be content if he ends up spending all his time chasing punts and blocking for kickoff returns. In this day and age, that’s special.