Panthers Game Changing Offseason Moves - Part 3

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This is the third in a series of sponsored posts that cover the Panthers game changing offseason moves. In part one I described the release of long time Panther QB Jake Delhomme and the resulting ascension of back-up Matt Moore. The second feature looked at the departure of DE Julius Peppers and the potential impact on the Panther defense. This week we turn to the often overlooked third phase of a football game...Special Teams.   

This offseason the Panthers decided to part ways with ST coach Danny Crossman and hired Jeff Rodgers as his replacement. The need for a change was apparent as the Panthers kick return and coverage units were one of the worst in the NFL over the past several seasons. Consider the 2009 results:

  • 31st in kick-off returns with a 19.9 average
  • 30th in kick-off coverage 24.8 yard return average
  • 16th in avg punt return yards (up from 18th last season)
  • 14th in punting with a 43.5 yds/punt average (up from 23rd)
  • 24th in net avg punt return coverage (down from 17th)

more after the jump...

So you can see the Panthers have plenty of room for improvement in special teams play and though there was slight improvement from 2008 to 2009 it's safe to say it was not enough...by a long shot.

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via prod.static.panthers.clubs.nfl.com


So will Jeff Rodgers be able to turn things around? Ultimately it's the players on the field that have to execute the scheme and make the tackles or blocks. How much of an impact can a coach really make? Let's look at Rodgers resume:

 

In his only season with Kansas State, Rodgers guided the special teams units to among the nation's best. The Wildcats led the country in blocked kicks with a school-record nine, blocked punts with four and kickoff coverage with an opponents' average drive start of the 21.9-yard line. Kansas State also scored six special teams touchdowns, including five on punt returns. Additionally, Rodgers coached two players who earned All-Big 12 honorable mention: kick/punt returner Brandon Banks and kicker Brooks Rossman.

Rodgers previously gained NFL experience with San Francisco from 2003-2007, working as the special teams quality control coach for two seasons before being elevated to assistant special teams coach in 2005. In 2007, he helped Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee finish first in the NFC and second in the NFL in net punting with an average of 41.0 yards and set a league record with 42 punts inside the 20. The 49ers also ranked first in the NFL in kickoff coverage with an opponents' average drive start of the 24.9-yard line.

So it looks like his coaching had good results in college but I'm not sure how much of the 49ers success you can attribute to Rodgers. I would imagine he at least learned a lot from the effort.

As I mentioned earlier I feel in the end it's the players on the field who have to execute and should therefore bear the burden of the failed performance. I think the Panthers agree. Though they changed ST coaching they didn't stop there. In the past the Panthers seemed content in using back-up players to perform on special teams with the plan to ‘coach these guys up' if there were not experienced at ST. That philosophy appears to have been canned. The Panthers have also brought in several experienced ST players who ‘specialize' in certain aspects of the all important function.

They started by bringing in S Marcus Hudson, one of the stars of the 49ers ST unit and a guy Rodgers obviously has experience with. Hudson appears to be an option for one of the outside gunner positions to replace the departed Dante Wesley. Here's his 2009 summary (All via Panthers.com):

2009
Played in 12 games and was inactive for four games for San Francisco...Ranked second on the team with a career-high 24 special teams tackles...Contributed five tackles on defense...Inactive due to injury versus Seattle (9/20) - knee, at Seattle (12/6) - back, and versus Arizona (12/14) - back.

With the same intent of improving kick coverage, the Panthers also signed Aaron Francisco:

2009
Signed as a free agent by Indianapolis (9/7) after being released by Arizona in the final roster cutdown (9/5)...Played in 10 games with two starts and was inactive for six games...Logged nine tackles on defense and seven on special teams...Started the last two games of the season at strong safety...Did not play in Weeks 10-15 because of a sprained right ankle...POSTSEASON: Played in all three games, including Super Bowl XLIV against New Orleans (2/7)...Made two special teams tackles.

2008
Played in 16 games with four starts for Arizona...Elected as the Cardinals' special teams captain for the second consecutive season...Produced 49 tackles, two passes defensed and one forced fumble...Ranked third on the team with 18 special teams tackles...Started two games at strong safety for an injured Adrian Wilson (hamstring) and two games at nickel back...POSTSEASON: Played in all four games, including Super Bowl XLIII against Pittsburgh (2/1), with one start...Registered 10 tackles, one interception and two passes defensed...Contributed three tackles on special teams..

Any finally a 3rd option for the coverage unit, Wallace Wright:

2009
Played in 16 games for the New York Jets...Ranked third on the team with 22 special teams tackles...Posted two receptions for 21 yards...POSTSEASON: Appeared in all three playoff games...Logged four special teams tackles.

The Panthers also turned their attention to the return game. The Panthers were obviously unhappy with the overall performance of the returners and have therefore brought in several more options for returning kicks in 2010:

Moving on the the kick return game:

Brian Witherspoon:

2009
Played in eight games and was inactive for eight games with Jacksonville and Detroit...Returned 28 kickoffs for 640 yards with a long of 42 and nine punts for 88 yards with a long of 42...Added three special teams tackles...Averaged 23.7 yards on 24 kickoff returns and 11.1 yards on seven punt returns in seven games before being waived by the Jaguars (12/14)...Claimed off waivers by the Lions (12/15) and posted four kickoff returns for 72 yards and two punt returns for 10 yards in one game...At San Francisco (11/29): Generated a career-long 42-yard punt return.

Dexter Jackson:

2008
Played in seven games for Tampa Bay...Inactive for the last nine games of the season...Averaged 23.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns and 4.9 yards on 20 punt returns...Drafted in the second round (58th overall) by the Buccaneers...

Of course there is also the rookie draft picks David Gettis and Armanti Edwards who can also return kicks. So if nothing else the Panthers have given themselves a number of options to return kicks, all of which provide much needed speed.

It is very hard to say how this key offseason change will pan out. My thoughts are that it could hardly turn out worse. But I think the decision to bring in veterans who specialize in kick coverage and who will know their role on the team is a good move that should provide benefit.These won't be distracted with trying to earn a starting role (though I'm sure they still hope to) and therefore will simply focus on their ST craft. The large number of guys to choose from to return kicks will certainly improve the Panthers odds of improving the Panthers field position battle. Combine that with the change in coaching and I think this could be one of the better offseason moves of the 2010 season.

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