It was a Tuesday afternoon during the NFL season.
Instead of game planning and trying new ways to bust the wedge and to protect his punter, Gary Zauner was about to take a swim at his Arizona home. Asked if he desired to become a special-teams coach in the NFL again, Zauner, 59, didn’t hesitate.
“No, because I don’t want to be asked questions about why my special teams are bad,” said Zauner, who now owns his own special teams consulting firm, which specializes in working with kicking specialists. After 13 years as an NFL special teams coach, Zauner clearly had enough of the pressure of coaching the unappreciated third phase of the game.
Zauner feels for his friend Steve Crosby, the special teams coach of the San Diego Chargers. Known as one of the better special teams coaches in the NFL, Crosby is under scrutiny because his once air-tight unit has been disastrous through the first five games.
San Diego (2-3) could easily be 5-0 if it weren’t for its dreadful special teams. In San Diego’s three losses this season, the special teams have surrendered 30 points. The Chargers have lost the three games by a combined 22 points.
San Diego has allowed a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown at Kansas City, two kickoff returns for touchdowns at Seattle and two blocked punts at Oakland in less than five minutes, which resulted in a touchdown and a safety. Football Outsiders believes the Chargers are on their way to having perhaps the worst overall special-teams unit in the history of the NFL.
“It’s every phase of the special teams in San Diego,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “It is killing a good team. It’s a brutal way to lose. It’s so repetitive. It’s just a massive problem for an otherwise really good team.”
San Diego coach Norv Turner scoffed at talk that Crosby would be fired earlier this week when he responded to a question about the assistant’s job security by saying: “Don’t be silly.” Miami coach Tony Sparano didn’t have the same patience after Week 4 when he fired John Bonamego following the Dolphins’ special-teams miscues that directly led to 21 points for New England in the spotlight of "Monday Night Football."
“I’ve been there before,” Zauner said. "When I had good players on special teams, I was a good special teams coach. When I had bad special-teams players, I was a bad special-teams coach … Steve Crosby is a fine special-teams coach. He’s one of the best. He’s the not the problem.”
So, what is the problem in San Diego?
“It’s probably several little things,” Zauner said.
How can the problems be fixed?
“It’s not that easy,” Zauner said.
Added Scouts Inc.’s Gary Horton when asked how the Chargers can turn around their fortunes on special teams: “I wish I knew the answer. It’s just baffling.”
Zauner said there are no quick fixes for broken special teams during the season, just some Band-Aid solutions. Zauner said the Chargers can kick to the corners of the field to try to cut down on long returns and ask punter Mike Scifres to try to punt with a better hang time but not worry about punting as long as he usually does. To guard against blocked punts, perhaps the team could put starting offensive linemen on the line. Zauner said putting more starters on the coverage teams can help too.
“It really comes down to personnel,” Zauner said. “You either have good special-teams players or not.”
The Chargers are missing two key players and it is clearly making a huge difference. Coverage ace Kassim Osgood signed with Jacksonville as a free agent because he wanted a chance to play receiver, which wasn’t an option in San Diego. The team doesn’t have the coverage aptitude it had with Osgood, even though San Diego kept 28 defensive players on the original 53-man roster in an attempt to load up on quality special-teams coverage players. Often, the best special-teams players are backup linebackers and defensive backs.
In addition to the Osgood departure, San Diego is playing without long-snapper David Binn for the first time since 1993. Binn is known as one of the best snappers in NFL history. He was lost for the season at Kansas City with a hamstring injury he suffered while trying to make a play on rookie Dexter McCluster’s team-record punt return.
In the next two weeks, two of Binn’s replacements, James Dearth and Ryan Neill, were lost for the season with injuries. The team is on its fifth snapper of the season after going 17 seasons with only one. Ethan Albright was released this week in favor of rookie Mike Windt. Zauner believes the loss of Binn and subsequent flux at snapper have created obvious timing issues.
Scifres has had three punts blocked in the past four games. He had one punt blocked in six previous NFL seasons. There haven’t been any blatant issues in the place-kicking game.
“They miss Binn and Osgood,” Zauner said. “Those are big losses and the Chargers are feeling it. ... Those are hard players to replace.”
Still, Horton said there are more issues. He studied film of the two blocked punts against Oakland and saw clear trouble.
“On one of the [blocked punts], the guy came in unblocked,” Horton said. “Something is going on there. I know they work on it and they watch film, but something is not working there. I don’t know the answer, but it has to be fixed. They have to fix it.”
The special-teams trouble in San Diego could sink the team, and there are no sure solutions. Perhaps that’s why Zauner would rather swim during football season.