The NFL is the most popular professional sport in the U.S. these days by far. As a result, it is talked about, written about, analyzed and dissected year-round.
Yet even with all the heightened scrutiny, little if any time is devoted to talking about a key phase of the game -- special teams.
There are no talk-show hosts taking phone calls about the local team's punt protection unit in March. I've yet to see an entire column breaking down a team's kickoff coverage squad in June. It just doesn't happen. Special teams are the phase nobody cares to discuss.
Until, that is, they are the deciding factor in a game come September and October.
Then special-teams play immediately become the topic du jour, as fans and media alike call for the heads of coaches, kickers and more.
Already through the first seven weeks of the 2010 season, special teams have had a huge impact on the outcome of more than a dozen games, if not more. And it's not just the field goal kicking, although that is often the most obvious aspect of the kicking game. Ask the Oakland Raiders and Sebastian Janikowski or the New Orleans Saints and Garrett Hartley about the influence that one aspect of special teams has had on their teams' won-loss record. Each kicker missed a chip-shot field goal that would have given his team a key win earlier in the season.
Even without the obvious missed field goal examples, special-teams disasters aleady have made a huge imprint on this NFL season.
The San Diego Chargers are probably the poster children for this so far this year. They gave up a punt return for a touchdown to Dexter McCluster and the Chiefs in Week 1, and were able to top that inept performance by giving up two kickoff return scores to Leon Washington and the Seahawks in Week 3. They've had several other miscues on special teams as well, the most recent being the false start penalty Sunday against New England that forced them to try a late game-tying field goal attempt from 5 more yards back.
The Miami Dolphins probably are running a close second. One week after they had a punt blocked against the New York Jets, special teams pretty much singlehandedly was the difference in a Monday night loss to the Patriots. The Dolphins had another punt blocked, allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, and had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown to top it all off.
So why are some teams so much better than others on special teams? I was a member of a couple of top-ranked special-teams units in Buffalo, including the 2004 squad, and think these are the three biggest reasons for success or failure in the kicking game:
1. Emphasis placed on this phase by the head coach: Every head coach in the league will pay these units lip service, but how much do they truly emphasize it? Are they personally involved in this phase at all? Most importantly, how much practice time is devoted to special teams throughout the year?
2. Number of roster spots devoted to special teams: Guys who are on a roster mainly because of their competence in the "big four" (punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return) aspects of the kicking game are called core special-teamers. Look at a roster and see how many your team has. Does it have two or three or six or seven? Makes a big difference.
3. The experience of the core special-teamers: A lot of teams think they can just draft linebackers and safeties in the later rounds and throw them out on the field. Big mistake. You can have one or two rookies out there, but if you have too many guys playing special teams who have never before done it because they were the big men on their college campuses, you may begin to have mistakes that can lead to game-changing plays.
Most NFL coaches and executives know these three things and will talk about them publicly, but just like anything else in life, their actions speak a lot louder than words.
From the inbox
Q: How much does the average player pay for union dues in the NFL? Is it a flat rate or is it a percentage?
Allan from Lethbridge, Alberta
A: It is a flat rate, and it went from $5,000 to $10,000 during my career. In the past couple of years it has been $15,000 because of the looming threat of a lockout.
Q: You're the perfect guy to ask this question. Please walk us through of the importance of a good offensive line, and how that makes a lot of problems go away, and the damage a bad offensive line can do. I can tell you once my roommate (a former offensive lineman) broke down the game for me from his standpoint. It changed my view completely of the game, both offensively and defensively. People need to be educated on this.
Rui from San Jose, Calif.
A: I'll probably delve into this a little deeper in a future column, but I would encourage you to simply look at my top 10 list of the best teams in the NFL. For the most part, the top five or six all have the same thing in common: They are very good up front on both sides of the ball.
Q: Coaches have a guide regarding when to go for two. Do they have something similar for when to use a challenge?
Paul from Vancouver, British Columbia
A: Well, the first thing you should know is that head coaches are usually highly dependent upon their assistants in the coaches box who have access to the television monitors and replays when making these decisions. That said, I do think coaches could do a better job of identifying what is and what is not worth challenging. I am consistently amazed at how many of them challenge the spots where balls are marked. Judgments like that are very rarely overturned.
Q: I was just wondering if you think the Bucs are for real? Also was wondering if you thought Josh Freeman would ever be a top-five QB in this league?
Chris from Kansas City, Mo.
A: The Bucs are building their franchise the right way by stockpiling draft choices, making good picks and playing those players early. It looks like they nailed the Freeman pick, which is probably the biggest reason for their early-season success. I don't see them making the playoffs this year but I do have high hopes for them, and Freeman in particular, in the years to come.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.