As we hurtle towards training camp, and the symbolic start of the NFL pre-season we now turn our attention to an entire phase of the game that has been brutally under-appreciated for close to a decade. Every coach has their own prerogative, and for John Fox he never put any value on special teams. In many ways he didn't need to-- he had a reliable kicker, a solid punter, and a belief that reliability wins football games, not unpredictable returns. While the rest of the league looked to find lightning in a bottle at their PR and KR spots, Foxy was happier to call for fair catches, and keep the game in his own hands.
Ron Rivera has a very different method of thinking. While his stern approach to protecting the football could come straight out of John Fox's mouth, the desire to work the big play is the antithesis. The first move was to get a big armed QB who could stretch the field, then install high-risk, high-reward plays like options, and designed QB runs to gain big yardage in a small amount of time. All the while 2011 was spent evaluating the mediocre special teams talent the Panthers had, and seeing who could be salvaged-- the answer: not many.
The Carolina Panthers enter the 2012 season with a new punter, a new punt returner, and several new special teams gunners and blockers, all designed to remove predictability, and add big play potential. You don't spend a 4th round pick on the best punt returner in college football unless you're making a statement about what you want your unit to be, and we'll look at that potential...
After the jump
Special teams were bad. Not just bad, but atrocious. It doesn't take a discerning eye to watch on Sunday and see a phase of the game with terrible returns, mediocre blocking, and disastrous coverage, but for sake of discussion here are the Panthers' averages over the last three years:
- 21.83 yards per kick return (30th in the NFL)
- 7.8 yards per punt return (27th in the NFL)
Only the Cleveland Browns came close to Carolina's consistent mediocrity at gaining yards through returns. Thankfully last year the front office added Kealoha Pilares to become the Panthers' kick returner, and he offered immediate dividends. His 25.7 yard return average lifted the Panthers' return average from a paltry 21.9 yards in 2010, and actually offered a threat as a return man. He finished 12th in the NFL for average return yards among kick returners who fielded more than 15 returns, and was one of only nine returners in 2011 who scored a touchdown.
Rivera's hope was that Armanti Edwards could improve the punt return in the same way Pilares improved the kick return, but that wasn't the case last year. It's far too easy to point the finger solely at Armanti, but there was a very definite drain of talent at ancillary positions on special teams that led to sub-par blocking. However, Edwards does need to shoulder some of the blame too. Working in tight spaces on a PR becomes more instinctual than cerebral, and as a converted QB it was clear Edwards didn't innately have this ability. Granted, the blockers didn't buy him time, but there was a lot of wasted movement on Armanti's part where he moved laterally far too often, and this helped result in just a 5.5 yard return average-- worst in the NFL.
Enter Joe Adams. Averaging 16.89 yards per return, and finishing the season with four touchdowns he proved to be a dynamic, instinctual, and heady punt returner who looked over-confident at times, but whose ability paid off. At this point I'm sure we've all seen his astonishing 69 yard return against Tennessee, a play that should have gone wrong numerous times. While he wont be able to make the NFL look as foolish as the Volunteers, he will have a better understanding of how to move quickly, and work in tight spaces. It's a formality that he hasn't been named the team's punt returner yet, a move we should see solidified in Spartanburg.
The other key aspect to the improvement in special teams is far harder to judge, and relies more on empirical data than statistics, and that's special teams coverage. Again for reference, here are the last three years for the Panthers:
- 25.10 yards allowed per kick return (30th in the NFL)
- 11.10 yards allowed per punt return (18th in the NFL)
Thankfully the punt return yards allowed over the last few years hasn't been as terrible, but overall it's another poor state of affairs. To this end the Panthers were aggressive in free agency, and while others teams were concerned landing elite talent, Carolina quietly signed elite special teams players-- under appreciated guys who had great success in other locations. Kenny Onatolu from Minnesota was seen as that organization's best ST gunner and blocker, the same can be said for Haruki Nakamura from Baltimore, who could figure into the starting position at FS, which changes his slightly. Reggie Smith was a key special teams player in San Francisco, and the biggest name of the group Mike Tolbert who was one of the elite blockers for the San Diego Chargers before coming to Carolina.
It's very difficult to really measure the impact these guys will have, but a strong play was made to improve the coverage units as well as the returners. The margins for the Panthers offense to be elite, and their defense to be serviceable are so thin that an extra ten yards either way could make a huge difference to putting points on the board. Time will tell, but this special teams unit for 2012 is being set up in order to be an exciting, and dynamic unit.