Surviving the Super Bowl: The Basics of Special Teams (2013 Edition)

football, basics, special teams

It’s hard to imagine that often times all of the complicated scheming and hard-fought battles between offenses and defenses are ultimately decided by one guy’s leg…but more often than not in a close game, that’s exactly what happens. It all comes down to a kick.

There are five types of kicks to be aware of, and you’re probably familiar with most of them:

1. Kickoffs: Kickoffs happen after scoring drives and at the beginning of each half. A coin is flipped at the beginning of the game to determine who kicks off first (the winner of the coin toss gets to decide whether they want to kick off first (and therefore play defense first) or defer to the second half (and therefore play offense first), a decision entirely based on strategy, not whim).

2. Punts: Teams punt the ball away when they have reached 4th down and don’t believe it wise (or possible) to try and get the extra yardage they need to get to the first down marker. (We talked about punts in more detail in the 4th down section of the basics of offense post, if you need a refresher.)

3. Field Goals: If a team is near the end zone and can’t score a touchdown in 3 downs, they’ll likely kick a field goal on 4th down. Field goals are worth 3 points. You might have noticed that the distance from the line of scrimmage to the end zone and the distance from the line of scrimmage to a field goal are different. You’re right! If a team is at the 30-yard line on 3rd down, they’ll be kicking a 47 yard field goal attempt, not a 30 yard field goal attempt. That’s because 17 yards are added to the distance to account for the 10 yards of end zone (the goal post is at the back of the end zone) and the space between where the line of scrimmage is and where the kicker lines up (7 yards away). (Need more help? Check out this post.)

4. Extra Points: After a team scores a touchdown (6 points), they line up to kick an extra point (worth…you guessed it: 1 point!), for a total of 7 points. Barring a penalty, extra points are kicked from the 2-yard line. If a team is behind and needs to catch up or even/exceed the score, they might “go for two” instead of kicking an extra point, which means that instead of kicking an extra point after a touchdown, they’ll line up at the 2-yard line and try to get the ball in the end zone. If they do, it’s worth 2 points.

5. Onside Kicks: If a team is down by a lot of points late in the game and is slated to kick the ball off to the other team, they might attempt an onside kick to regain possession of the ball and try to score more points on offense. You’ll notice an onside kick attempt quickly and easily because the teams stand much closer to each other than they do for normal kickoffs. In an onside kick, the ball is kicked low to the ground and travels like a skipping rock. It must travel at least 10 yards, but the kicker will try to keep it as close to 10 yards as possible to give his team a greater chance of recovering the ball, since the other team is lined up closer than usual and has a greater likelihood of reaching the ball first. (For much more on onside kicks, see this post.)

6. Drop Kicks: Drop kicks happen every once in a blue moon (literally), but are important to know about because they can easily catch the opposing team off-guard. As defined by the NFL rulebook, a drop kick is ”a kick by a kicker who drops the ball and kicks it as, or immediately after, it touches the ground.” A team can drop kick a field goal or an extra point, but they can also drop kick a fair catch. A player signaling for the fair catch of a punt can receive the punt and then drop kick the ball in a field goal attempt.

All of the kicking plays described above are executed by the special teams unit – an ironically named bunch seeing as how they usually get the short end of the respect stick. But special teams can truly make or break a season for a team. Have you ever seen a complete momentum shift after a team that was down returns a kickoff for a touchdown? That’s all special teams. How about when a team misses an opportunity to go to the playoffs due to missed field goal in the final seconds of the game? That’s special teams, too. It’s the unit that is either a team’s best friend or worst enemy.

The special teams unit is responsible for any play that involves punting or kicking. The placekicker and the punter are specialized positions specifically for the special teams unit. Those players only play on special teams. But guys who play on offense and defense can, and usually do, have a role in special teams as well as a roll on offense or defense. Wes Welker, who is going to the Super Bowl with the Broncos this season, had a long history as a productive member for both offense and special teams for the Patriots. Ditto: Chicago’s Devin Hester (although Hester primarily shines in special teams). More often than not, though, rookies and second-string players are relegated to the less-than-glamorous positions on the special teams units because they haven’t earned playing time on offense or defense yet.

And there you have it! Tomorrow we’ll have a final review (hint: a quiz) to make sure you’re 100% ready, but if you’ve made it through the offense, defense, and special teams posts over the past few days, you are well on your way to Surviving the Super Bowl! Way to go!

(Do your own touchdown dance. Come on, just do it! You know you want to.)

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