Gene Smith sees all the angles. In his 18 month tenure, the autonomy granted by Wayne Weaver has been completely justified by Smith’s body of work. But GM Gene must contend with circumstances beyond the realm of player personnel. Despite playing in Jacksonville for 15 seasons, the Jaguars are yet to establish a fanbase large enough and loyal enough to fill the stadium on an annual basis – a direct consequence of failing to field a product consistently worth the value of a season ticket. The fans need to see a winner, but building for sustained success by drafting and developing young talent takes time – something the Commissioner himself has warned is in desperately short supply for the Jaguars. So in this perfect storm of opposing pressures, what gives? Thankfully, our all-knowing GM has found a comprehensive solution where no one else was looking and with an army of NFL misfits, will save the franchise. Elite Special Teams will compensate for the Jaguars’ deficiencies of talent and experience in the upcoming season, keeping the team competitive and the fans satisfied as Smith’s draft classes mature and the foundation of the upcoming Jacksonville dynasty is solidified.
Special Teams players provide immediate return, an overlooked benefit that directly addresses the biggest threat to the Jaguars organization – time. Rookies often play Special Teams for their first year or two in the league, either as a way of earning their way onto the roster or to contribute as they learn the intricacies of their full-time position. Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Thomas were highly effective return men during their rookie years as they prepared themselves for the roles they were drafted for. As undrafted rookie free agents, Montell Owens and Kassim Osgood were not guaranteed the opportunities Jones-Drew and Thomas were, but proved themselves more than worthy of a roster spot as capable “gunners” and have since developed into Pro-Bowl level talents. The learning curve tends to be much shorter for Special Teams positions and though the craft can be honed like any other, will and vision are intangible abilities essential to success. Gene Smith singled out two return specialists in the 2010 draft, Deji Karim and Scotty McGee, who he coveted for their fearlessness and ability to read the blocks. If the preseason has been any indication, these two will be making a significant impact right from the opening kickoff on September 12th.
Exceptional Special Teams also have the ability to mask shortcomings on both sides of the ball, buying time while our ’09 and ’10 draft picks settle into their roles and Gene Smith prepares to further bolster his arsenal in the 2011 draft. Let’s break it down. At its core, football is extremely simple – the Offense attempts to move the ball incrementally into scoring range by getting first downs and the Defense attempts to prevent them from doing so. Even the elite Offenses and Defenses of the NFL don’t achieve these objectives on every outing. Using a hypothetical example, if the Colts’ Offense converts a first down 80% of the time they begin a fresh set of downs, there’s a 64% (.8² =.64) chance they’ll convert consecutive first downs. If they have to convert five first downs to get into scoring range, they have only a 33% (.8⁵=.327) chance of doing that. Now the picture’s starting to come together – it’s a game of odds and therefore, field position. So when Kassim Osgood or Montell Owens flattens a punt returner inside the 10 yard line, they’re exponentially decreasing the opposing Offense’s odds of stringing enough first downs together to move into scoring range, thus helping the Defense accomplish their objective. And when Deji Karim breaks a kick return all the way to midfield, he’s putting the Jags’ Offense within two first downs of scoring range and giving them a much-improved probability of putting some points on the board. When the Special Teams unit executes kick returns and coverage at a high level, less effort is needed to accomplish great results by the Offense and Defense.
Winning the battle of field position doesn’t just make it easier for offensive and defensive players to do their jobs, it translates into wins. If you’re the type that likes statistical evidence, check out this table of teams’ Average Starting Position (ASP) from 2003-2008. Obviously fumbles, interceptions, and turnovers on downs factor into these stats, but Special Teams has the greatest impact on ASP. During these five seasons, the ASP for Offenses was the 30.9 yard line (obviously, this number is the same for Defense). Teams won 67.2% of games in which their Offense’s ASP was better than the league average and 63.1% of games in which their Defense’s ASP was better than the league average. In games where both their offensive AND defensive ASP were better than the league average, teams won 74.4% of the time. When you see what a profound effect a few yards difference on every Special Teams play can have, it becomes obvious that Gene Smith didn’t bring the Osgoods, Karims, and McGees of the NFL world into Jacksonville for merely positional depth.
Can Special Teams carry the torch while our young guys develop? Will it be enough to take the Jaguars into playoff contention? We will have the answers soon.
- Andrew Hofheimer