Countdown to Camp: Special teams consistency an invaluable commodity

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This is Part 9 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

With all the attention this off-season focused on the the additions to the defense and a new offensive coaching staff and dynamic offensive playbook, it’s easy to overlook and take for granted the third phase of the game. It’s the special teams, however, that have been the most consistent and dependable unit since Dave Toub took over in 2004.

Kicker Robbie Gould, punter Brad Maynard, and long snapper Patrick Mannelly at those positions have formed one of the best trios in the league for the past four years.

Gould, at 85.9% for his career, is one of the most accurate kickers in league history. What he’s been able to accomplish in the swirling winds of Soldier Field is no small accomplishment. There’s a high turnover ratio among kickers in the league and for Gould to go out and be almost automatic makes him a valuable asset.

Maynard, although advancing in age, may not have the leg strength he once did but is still deadly at directional and coffin-corner punting. What that does is prevent opponents with deadly punt returners from getting a good return and it maintains good field position for the Bears.

Perhaps what is taken the most for granted is Mannelly’s consistency at long snapping. What fans think is automatic is anything but. Countless times, we see long snaps from other teams that cost a field goal or even an extra point, or lead to a bad punt. But we don’t see that happen with the Bears too often. And if Mannelly’s snaps ever do stray, Maynard and Gould have the patience to correct their approaches and still convert a good kick.

Having a solid kicker, punter, and long snapper doesn’t necessarily reflect on the special teams coordinator, but having three of the best kick returners in the NFL certainly does. It also reflects well on the front office for drafting those players. Devin Hester, Danieal Manning, and Johnny Knox are three of the most explosive returners in the league and always seem to be just one small seam away from breaking for the end zone.

The ability to use these guys interchangeably not only gives the opponent a different look, but gives the Bears insurance should one of them get hurt. And should all three suffer injuries, I have the utmost confidence that the Bears could insert someone else into the mix and have a good amount of success as well. After all, I’m sure everyone remembers Earl Bennett returning a punt 49 yards for a touchdown against the Ravens last year, and Bennett is no faster than the average player in the league.

The plan is to have Hester returning punts and Manning and Knox splitting time returning kickoffs. Manning is more a north-south runner who heads straight up the field the instant he catches the ball, lowers his head and is not afraid to take on a tackler with physicality. Knox is more patient, looks for that one seam, and darts right through it. Hester, of course, is like a returner in a video game who will do circles, jukes, and dance moves until he finds his opening. Sometimes it’s detrimental, but other times he can surprise us. He’s been in a return drought since 2007, but something tells me he’ll break one this year. He made strides from 2008 to 2009 in terms of eliminating his hesitation and making one cut up the field. Let’s hope he improves again from last year to this season.

Lastly, what reflects most on Toub is how much turnover the Bears have had on their coverage and blocking units — like all NFL teams do — and yet how consistently high they rank in the league each year. Toub’s ability to take players like Adrian Peterson, Rashied Davis, and Garrett Wolfe and turn them from fringe offensive players into solid special teams players is quite impressive. And now with Peterson moving on, somebody else is surely going to step up and make a name for himself.

Special teams are so often overlooked by fans due to the small amount of time they spend on the field. But converting field goals, avoiding turnovers with good snaps, and pinning opponents deep in their end of the field with directional kicking and good coverage are just as important to winning a football game as what the offense and defense do. That’s why we’re all thankful the Bears are solid in the third phase.

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