(First in a series of posts circling back on the 2012 season and some of our preseason themes.)
Our fine ESPN.com blog editing team passed along a link to Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings last week. Now, let's take a moment to amplify its information and provide some context.
Gosselin has been evaluating NFL special teams for 33 years by ranking them in 22 objective categories and assigning points for their standing. The Minnesota Vikings finished No. 1 this season, a development that might not have been obvious during the season even when you consider the historic season of place-kicker Blair Walsh.
From Gosselin's analysis: "Minnesota booted the most field goals, committed the fewest turnovers and allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season on special teams. The Vikings finished in the top five in seven other categories and the top 10 in four more."
Indeed, Walsh converted 35 field goals. None of the Vikings' returners -- primarily Percy Harvin and Marcus Sherels -- lost a fumble, and the Vikings did not allow a touchdown return. That's a pretty comprehensive season-long performance.
For comparison, I also looked at Football Outsiders' (FO) regular-season special teams rankings, which is based more on statistical analysis. In essence, FO takes finds the average performance of NFL teams in multiple categories and then ranks teams based on their distance -- in either direction -- from that average.
Using that method, the Vikings ranked a very healthy No. 5 overall.
Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer deserves credit, first and foremost, for identifying Walsh among the scores of draft-eligible college kickers and following through on his belief that a minor fundamental flaw was responsible for Walsh's poor final season at Georgia. Identifying, recommending and developing an All-Pro player as a rookie -- no matter what position -- is an impressive feat and a résumé-builder. But as both rankings show, Walsh wasn't the only factor in the Vikings' special-teams success.
Based on Gosselin's assessment and FO's analysis, we can say the Vikings had an elite special-teams group in 2012. The Chicago Bears were not far behind, taking a No. 6 ranking from FO and No. 9 from Gosselin.
The Green Bay Packers were about average, finishing No. 12 in Gosselin's report and No. 18 in the FO analysis, and the Detroit Lions were poor based mostly on their early-season woes. After becoming the first team in NFL history to allow a punt and kickoff return to be returned for touchdowns in consecutive games, the Lions finished No. 30 in both rankings. Meanwhile, their punting situation -- Nick Harris took over for an injured Ben Graham after Week 3 -- produced the league's lowest gross punting average (41.4 yards) and its third-lowest net (36.9).