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Thursday, January 7, 2010
2009 All-NFC West Specialists

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

NFC West teams know how to do special teams even when they're faking it.

The Rams claimed their lone victory after kicker Josh Brown threw a touchdown pass to Daniel Fells against the Lions on a fake field goal.

The Seahawks were no match for the Cardinals in Week 6 except when they found tight end John Carlson for a 41-yard gain on a fake punt.

More conventionally, Cardinals punter Ben Graham tied the single-season record for punts downed inside the 20 (fittingly, 49ers punter Andy Lee set the record in 2007). As good as Graham was this season, Lee was the one earning a Pro Bowl berth -- even though Seattle's Jon Ryan and St. Louis' Donnie Jones also deserved consideration.

The Cardinals badly needed a spark at Tennessee when LaRod Stephens-Howling broke free for a 99-yard kickoff return.

Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare set a franchise record for consecutive field goal tries without a miss. He also ranked fifth among NFL kickers in touchback percentage at 31.8 (the Cardinals' Neil Rackers was next among NFC West kickers at 21.5, ranking 11th).

These and other factors came into consideration when I settled on the all-division team of specialists for the 2009 season.

There were some tough decisions.

The 49ers' Michael Robinson is probably the best all-around special-teams player in the division, but Stephens-Howling made a strong impression helping Graham match the inside-the-20 record. He posted one of the finest single-game efforts in memory against the Titans when he downed three punts inside the 10 and also had the 99-yard touchdown return. Stephens-Howling led the Cardinals' in special-teams tackles and helped their kickoff coverage team improve significantly from last season.

The Rams' Danny Amendola was consistently the best return specialist on punts and kickoffs, but Stephens-Howling broke the 99-yarder. All four punters enjoyed strong seasons.

"I would suggest Amendola as both PR and KR and LaRod Stephens-Howling as general special-teamer," Yuma81 wrote in the comments when we discussed the subject last week. "Amendola has more kickoff returns and a higher average. Stephens-Howling has been a standout on punt and kickoff return coverage."

Amendola ranked tied for second in the NFL with five kickoff returns of at least 40 yards. He tied for third with five punt returns of at least 20 yards. No one in the division had more returns.

I combined the punt and kickoff return positions and added a second spot for a general special-teamer, allowing Robinson and Stephens-Howling to earn the recognition they deserved.