The Seattle Seahawks ended their 2010 regular season ranked 30th in Football Outsiders DVOA efficiency metrics only the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals were worse. They ranked 29th in offense, 29th in defense and third in special teams.
The advanced stats confirm what you may already have suspected without the consistently dynamic special teams play that has been there all season, this Seahawks team wouldnt be within ten miles of the 2010 playoffs. Return ace Leon Washington absolutely took over the eventual win over the San Diego Chargers by taking two kicks back for touchdowns and almost breaking a third. Defensive lineman Craig Terrill blocked three field goals in-season to tie the franchise record of eight for his career.
The wild-card win over the New Orleans Saints featured two remarkable (and repeated) sights Seattles coverage teams blocking the Saints back inside their own 20 over and over, and New Orleans squibbing kickoffs to keep the ball away from Washington. And in the seasons first matchup against the Chicago Bears in Week 6 (a 23-20 win for Seattle), Seahawks punter Jon Ryan pinned the Bears, possessors of the NFLs best punt return DVOA by far, inside their own 10-yard line on five separate occasions.
They also gave up an 89-yard return to Hester, but theres a risk/reward game that must be played with players of Hesters caliber. In his Wednesday press conference, Pete Carroll insisted that avoiding Hester is not an option if they want to gain the tenuous special teams advantage. It was true then, and it will be true in the divisional rematch this Sunday morning.
Were looking at a guy whos the best at what he does in history, so we have to be very clear about what our plan is which is to stay on the attack on special teams and to stay aggressive, Carroll said. We know that hes going to get the ball in his hands so were going to have to do a really good job of pursuing, and scheme-wise, and the effort and everything every phase has to be on the mark. We saw him do it. He broke one on us at just light speed and before you know it, theyre right back in that game and ready to take a win away from us. Just in the flash of a moment, hes gone. We have great respect for him and were going to do everything we can to minimize his part in this game, but thats not easily done.
For Washington, the target of equal expectations from the Bears coverage units, the graphic improvement in Seattles special teams in 2010 (up from 15th in 2009) is less about his new spot on the roster, and more about a wholesale change in thought that placed a critical importance on the concept.
“I think that collectively, we all trust each other, more than at any other time in my career. As a returner, its always about trusting the guys in front of me to get the job done, Washington said. I mean, when you have guys like Michael Robinson, Roy Lewis, Matt McCoy thats just to name a few guys who take it seriously, we believe that you can change the game on special teams. If I do my job correctly, and they do their job correctly, it all works out for each other.
“You can see the same thing in Chicago, with all the returns Hester has out there. On a lot of his returns, hes just catching the ball and going straight up the field because everyones blocked and everyones doing their job. Its a unit that a lot of teams overlook, but not the Seahawks, and not the Bears. We take pride in it.
Washington was also a dynamo for the New York Jets, becoming one of the leagues most terrifying return threats before a gruesome leg injury threatened to end his career last season. Not only was he able to come back, but the draft-weekend trade that brought him to Seattle turned out to be one of the most important of the seemingly endless trail of roster moves Carroll and general manager John Schneider have made in the past year. In New York, Washington had veteran Mike Westoff as his position coach. In Seattle, its been Brian Schneider (no relation to John), who followed Carroll to USC on Lane Kiffins recommendation before the 2009 season and then moved to Seattle when Carroll did. Different approaches, same basic theories.
Franchises either value special teams, or they dont.
The difference is that Westoff has been doing this for over 20 years, and Schneider is new at it, Washington said. But theyre so similar in the details that they have on the special teams. Down to the smallest things that have to be right to make big plays, from blocking the punt to blocking the field goal. I mean, just go into one of our meetings — you watch us on field goal block, we are amped up because we feel that we can block a field goal every time. It just shows that we take pride in what we do.”
When asked why Hester is so special, Washington didnt hesitate to throw the compliments out there. For one thing, hes explosive on his first couple of steps. Very explosive out of his break. Hes got good hands and great ball skills. Hes a Florida boy like me, from the Sunshine State. Were outside a lot, so we just run! And when Devin Hester gets the ball in his hands, you can see the determination of the guys around him, wanting to make the block for him so that he can score a touchdown. Thats a sign of not only a great return man, but a great player. If you look at other guys in sports how Michael Jordan had complete faith in Steve Kerr to make that knockdown shot, and it just all draws in with each other.
Still, as important as special teams have been to these two organizations, the biases are still there. Mike Holmgren famously didnt want to waste any of his legitimate skill players on special teams, which is how you saw strange phenomena like fullback Heath Evans returning kickoffs. More often these days, teams realize its something you can build around. Teams like the Bears and Seahawks understand the advantage that can be had with relatively inexpensive players.
It can definitely be done, and it can also be emphasized to where a team knows it can give them an advantage. Thats the thing when we go into the games, we feel like we have the edge on special teams, because we have guys who love to do it, and know the game plan, and will go out there and execute it. If you think about the last game (against the Saints), and the field position advantage we had, we were downing those kicks inside the 20, making tackles it was huge.
The Seahawks have the edge most weeks, though if they beat the Bears and play the NFC Championship game in Atlanta, theyd be going up against a Falcons team that ranks second in overall special teams DVOA. In that case, the NFC would be paced by the three teams with the best special teams in the NFL.
Coincidence? When the ancillary becomes mandatory, we think not.