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Something special here

Posted Dec 19, 2013

Three different personalities form one special team.

In the latest episode of the hilarious Yahoo animated cartoon video series "Sports Friends," running back Marshawn Lynch is having a conversation with his Seahawks' teammate kicker Steven Hauschka on the sidelines, by the Gatorade cooler.

The cartoon's conceit is that even though a running back and kicker play for the same team, they don't necessarily hang out and they may not even have met.

"I found out about it when Marshawn sent it to me," Hauschka said this week. "I looked at it and laughed. I think they got my personality spot on. We're thinking about maybe re-enacting it at some point. You never know."

Coach Pete Carroll even showed it to the team and joked that "everyone has to get better acquainted with each other."

"I'm always interacting with those guys," special teamer and fullback Derrick Coleman said. "Punting and kicking's a huge part of our team. If we didn't have that, we'd be in trouble."

There is the notion in football that kickers, punters and long snappers are part of the team, but really apart from the team. They spend so much time together, on a separate part of the practice field, away from the rest of their teammates, they seem to be their own entity – the specialists. And through the years, they've often been the punch lines in satirical cartoons or head coaches' postgame news conferences.

But on the Seahawks and increasingly around the NFL, the value of these specialists is being recognized and appreciated. And on this team, where every moving part of the team is working, the punter, place kicker and long snapper are having all-star seasons.

"I think the outside world might think that we're detached from the rest of the team, but we really aren't," punter Jon Ryan said. "You bond a lot in the locker room. It doesn't feel like we're detached at all."

The Seahawks are 12-2 because of their talented, together, rambunctious, defense. They are 12-2 because of their irresistible running game and their Houdini-playmaker of a quarterback.

But they also are 12-2 because of their special teams; because of Clint Gresham's consistently on-the-money snaps; because of punter Ryan's hot-air balloon hang time, and because of Hauschka's laser-guided field goal kicking.

"What we do is very different," Hauschka said. "It's a very specialized skill. It's kind of like a baseball player who might be good at hitting, but maybe isn't the best all-around athlete. That's how I view myself at least. I'm highly skilled at kicking. I was a decent athlete growing up, but can't compete with these guys out on the field now. But at this level, everything in the game is highly specialized.

"Everyone's got their own routine and we just happen to be on the side field because we need space. But everyone comes together for a common purpose and I feel completely a part of this team. That's never been a problem."

Hauschka, Ryan and Gresham have been together for three years and they are as close as cousins. They spend their practice days together. They eat lunches most days in front of their lockers together. They go to events, movies and dinners together.

YOU DON'T SAY

"What we do is very different."

Steven Hauschka

"We're three pretty opposite people," Ryan said. "We're different in a lot of ways, but we get along really well. Like I grew up in Canada. Clint is a Texan. The three of us are different in just about every way. We're different politically, religiously. I think all of our beliefs are pretty far apart, but we get along great. We've been close from the beginning, for three years now and it just seems like that bond just has kind of grown."

They sat in front of their lockers this week and talked about their roles and their places on this championship-level team.

"We all kind of have our differences," Hauschka said. "Jon's very regimented in his routines. That works for him really well. He works out really hard in the weight room. He may be one of the strongest guys on the team, no joke. Gresh has his stuff in the community that he's big on, like Young Life. He's a leader in the community and he's just a great snapper, so consistent for us. A great guy to be around. We all just have a good, healthy relationship."

Ryan and Gresham joined the Seahawks in 2010. Hauschka came the next season. Their first week together came before the 2011 season's opener in San Francisco. Hauschka had just been released by Denver.

"I knew by his demeanor, the way he carried himself, he'd be a great fit," Gresham said. "He's one of those guys who just does little things to make everyone around him better. We all just click pretty well. There's a common respect among all of us. We're all great friends and I know that's not the case on some other teams. Jon and Steve are my best friends on the team and it's a great treat to get to work with them every day."

There may not be a more specialized position in sports than long-snapper. Nobody knows who that guy is, until one of his snaps sails high over a punter's head, or veers into the body of a holder. But the position is as vitally important as it is unglamorous.

"The secret is consistency," Gresham said. "You can't make perfection your goal. You have to be realistic. Even quarterbacks throw interceptions every now and again. You have to take it one rep at a time and recognize that there's no difference in the snap for a game-winning kick or just on the sidelines warming up with Jon. You have to allow your inside world to be in control of what your outside world is doing."

And you have to rely on your chemistry – from snapper, to holder, to kicker.

Just how important that chemistry and timing is was apparent in an earlier season home win against Tennessee. Late in the first half, with Hauschka in the locker room, being checked for concussion-like symptoms, the Seahawks lined up for a short field goal attempt.

Ryan became the placekicker. Chris Maragos, replacing Ryan as holder, muffed Gresham's snap and in the ensuing melee, Tennessee returned the muff for a touchdown.

"I had a feeling something bad was going to happen," Hauschka said. "I was trying to do everything I could to get out there. But they wouldn't let me. They were holding on to my helmet until I passed the concussion protocol. But it just shows how important our job is."

The snaps, holds and kicks, especially on short field goal attempts, often are taken for granted by the leathery-throated fans in the stands, but the choreography has to be precise every time.

"That just showed how difficult this stuff is," Ryan said. "Sometimes the kickers and punters and snappers and holders make it look easy, but there's a lot more that goes into it than the average fan might think. We take thousands upon thousands of reps a year."

"It's hard to develop the kind of chemistry we have. But we definitely have something special here. We're comfortable with each other. We trust each other and we rely on each other."

Ryan looked over at Hauschka. "Steven's a real thinker. Every part of his game is really well thought through. He watches a ton of tape on himself. I'm kind of the opposite. I kind of rely more on athletic ability and just my feel, more than thinking and film breakdown. But we both take very serious approaches. We put a lot of time in it, but approach it entirely differently."

Ryan has become a phenomenon this year. Through 14 games, he has allowed only 19 return yards. That's the equivalent of one decent Golden Tate return all season. That means teams are starting their possessions against the stout Seahawks defense in lousy field position, series after series.

"I tell Jon every time he kicks it I expect to touch it down it on the one-yard line," Coleman said. "If it lands on the two I look at him and stick one finger up."

And Hauschka practically is having a perfect season. His only miss in 31 field goal attempts, was blocked. He is tied for second in the league in scoring with 130 points.

"It's always great to contribute when the team is winning like this," Ryan said. "Our success speaks a lot to Clint and how consistent he is with his snaps and just how good he is. And Steve is more dialed in than I've ever seen any kicker in my whole life. Ten years in pro football and I've never seen anything like it. He's not just hitting kicks, he's hitting them directly down the middle. It's almost never like the kick never just squeaks in there."

Ryan is averaging 42.5 yards a punt, down from his career average of 45, but he has dropped 22 of his 59 punts inside the 20. Like a golfer, spinning his wedge shots close to the stick, Ryan has been unerring in his short game.

"When you have an offense like we have here, you're often punting from the midfield area,' Ryan said, downplaying his remarkable season. "If you're playing for a team that isn't as successful, then when you're punting you're kind of digging your team out of a hole, trying to flip the field. What this team has needed basically is not always those big punts, but more strategical punts."

For 14 weeks and really for the past three years, this 21st century version of the Three Amigos has given the Seahawks exactly what they have needed.

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