Other than big returns, game-winning kicks, and yes, the occasional touchdown pass by a punter in the NFC championship game, there isn’t a lot of glory in special teams play.
The vast majority of work done on special teams involves either blocking or running down the field trying to make a tackle. It’s the unglamorous but very important part of football that often goes overlooked, and as such, special teams play is often talked about in terms of how it makes a player valuable to the team—if you’re that fifth receiver or linebacker trying to make the 53-man roster, you’d better be able to contribute on special teams.
But the other side of that equation, one that sometimes gets overlooked until years later, is the value that experience on special teams can provide to a young player. A few rookies come into the league ready to start right off the bat, but the vast majority need time to develop, and for players on both sides of the ball, special teams is a great way to help speed that development.
“Guys get a chance to express their ability and express their fit and also show you—we can learn a lot about guys just by how they handle their assignments and responsibilities and opportunities to make plays and all that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It does give you a window into what you’re getting into as the guy learns his position better. It’s a little easier for guys to adapt in special teams for the most part than it is to become a starting position player. It’s a great process for guys, it’s a showcase opportunity.”
Added special teams coach Brian Schneider: “There are just so many different skills involved. It’s really all open-field blocking or tackling. We always try to do the drills that work with your feet and your hands. There are so many direct carry-overs, because it’s playing in space. We’re just trying to make everyone improve, not only to help our team, but to make them a better football player and add to their own value.”
For most of his first five seasons with the Seahawks, linebacker Mike Morgan has been one of Seattle’s top special teams players while serving as a backup linebacker. This year he is the starting strongside linebacker, and he has little doubt that his work on special teams helped prepare him for a starting role.
“Special teams pretty much has everything to do with the game of football, from offense to defense,” Morgan said. “From the defensive side of the ball, if you’re on kickoff team, you’re working on going down the field, track a player and get a guy down in all types of situations…That’s hard to do, so that kind of stuff prepares you for defense. On offense, it prepares you for blocking. If you’re on kickoff return, you’ve got to block guys coming down full speed at you; that’s hard to do.”
Cornerback DeShawn Shead is another player who turned himself into an NFL starter in part because of what he could do on special teams. Shead first earned a promotion from Seattle’s practice squad because of his value on special teams, and after standing out in that phase of the game, he started to earn more playing time on defense last season. From there he won a starting job at cornerback this season.
“It definitely gives you a lot of confidence if you can go out there and be consistent on special teams and show all-out effort,” Shead said. “It gives you confidence to show that you can be reliable on the field. It’s an important step to becoming a starter, especially on this team.”
Morgan and Shead are just two of several Seahawks who play a big role on offense or defense after starting their careers primarily playing on special teams. Cassius Marsh made himself into one of Seattle’s best special teams players last season, and this year is a big part of the defensive line rotation with 3.0 sacks, which is tied for third most on the team. Several years ago, it was Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin and even Kam Chancellor standing out on special teams before establishing themselves as starters.
“Cassius showed us last year for the first time—he was banged up the year before—but he showed us that he was really responsible, he was an accountable guy, he was productive, he was tough, he showed great effort,” Carroll said. “He became one of our favorite special teams players last year, and look how he’s just picked up from that. So it has not only showed the coaches, but also showed himself that he has learned how to apply his ability and to be consistent and accountable and tough and all that. Shoot, he has doing a great job and having a fantastic season. He has continues to play really well on special teams, I think he’s our leading point getter on special teams right now, he’s right up there.
“That’s what happens for some guys. Kearse was a great example, that’s how Jermaine did it, a bunch of guys. Shead, great example. We didn’t know that much about a guy from Portland State, and he comes in here, shows he has a fit for some stuff then he shows you why you should extend the opportunity to him and give him chances to do cool things. Those are great indicators. Baldwin was a really good teams player. Kam was a really good teams player. All those guys showed up early on. Earl (Thomas) was a good teams player, they really contributed early as rooks, and it just gave you insights into what they could become.”
Marsh didn’t play a lot on defense as a rookie in 2014, and as a result he came back the following season realizing that if he wasn’t going to have a huge role on defense, he needed to find a way to make an impact on special teams.
“Special teams is all a matter of how seriously you take it, and I started taking it more seriously,” Marsh said. “If you’re a good player, you’ll go out there and make plays. I was like, ‘I’ve got to look for some other way to make plays and help the team win.’ That’s just kind of what happened… It probably helped the coaches be more confident in me knowing what I’m doing because I knew what I was doing on special teams. Maybe they felt like they could trust me more when it came to defense.”
Schneider certainly noticed the difference in Marsh last year.
“Big time, a huge jump,” Schneider said. “He’s such a matchup problem on special teams, because he’s big and he’s fast, and he has those D-end moves but can run like a linebacker, so he’s great in open space. He had to figure it out too. He’ll tell you, he was frustrated and we were frustrated. He didn’t know the importance of it, but now he sees the value he brings to the team.”
Marsh not realizing right away how important special teams play was is hardly unique. Schneider says that every year is a “constant” battle to convince rookies who were used to being starters in college to embrace special teams play. Of course it helps with All-Pros like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are still playing on special teams, as is Baldwin, who on the day he signed his latest contract extension texted Schneider to say he better not take him off of the punt return team.
“That’s where I rely on our players a lot to help me with that message,” Schneider said. “Kam and Earl are still on kick coverage. Shead is in every special teams meeting. He went from a practice squad player to a really good special teams player to a great special teams player to a starting corner… Baldwin, he won’t get off punt returns. He won’t do it. It helps when you can point to those guys. It makes a strong statement.”
Established veterans could play less often on special teams, or not at all, if they wanted to, but for many of them, it’s still one of their favorite parts of the game.
“Special teams helped me a lot,” said Chancellor, who spent his entire rookie season playing primarily on special teams before taking over a starting role the following year. “It helped me show who I am. It’s a lot of one-on-one matches, you just get to beat the crap out of one guy every time. It was fun, I enjoy special teams still. I have fun with special teams. It’s all one-on-one, you’re out there freelancing, kind of, within what the play is. I probably could (get out of playing special teams), but I don’t want to. I like trying to get the most tackles, it’s a competition.”
The Seahawks and Cardinals have matched up 35 times throughout their history, with an even split of 17 victories each as well as a tie that came earlier this season. The two teams face off again this Saturday at CenturyLink Field to see who will lead the all-time series.