Over the past few years the special teams unit of the Chargers hasn’t been very special. And although the unit as a whole improved under Rich Bisaccia the past two seasons, it’s been another area on the team where injuries and depth have taken its toll.
With veterans Mike Scifres, Nick Novak and Mike Windt returning to man the punter, kicking and long-snapping duties, respectively, the Chargers have a reliable and solid threesome performing those all-important duties every Sunday.
Following a disappointing performance in their 31-10 loss to the Seahawks in the exhibition opener, one has to question if Telesco and Co. assembled enough talented players to replace some of those veterans he failed to re-sign over the offseason – many of whom were key contributors on the kick coverage and return teams.
For the night, the Seahawks clearly outplayed the Chargers in the special teams area by posting 150 total return yards (4-94 yds. on punt returns; 2-56 yds. on interception returns) to the Chargers 8 yards (1-8 yds. on punt returns; 0 interceptions). Although the Chargers outgained the Seahawks on kickoff returns (4-84 yds. vs. 1-20 yds.), it is clear that both the coverage and return teams need to improve before the live bullets start flying on September 9th.
One aspect the Chargers have in their favor to improve their special teams is new coach Kevin Spencer. Entering his 23rd year in the NFL, Spencer has spent the last 15 years as a special teams coach with stints in Indianapolis (1998-01), Pittsburgh (2002-06) and Arizona (2007-12). He won a Super Bowl championship with the Steelers after the 2005 season and an NFC Championship with the Cardinals in ’08.
What makes his hiring so intriguing is Spencer’s knack for developing some of the best young returners into game-changing players.
In 1999, Terrence Wilkins was selected to a number of NFL All-Rookie teams after returning both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns that year playing for the Colts. In his five seasons learning under Spencer, Atwaan Randle-El set a Steelers’ team record with four punt returns for touchdowns. In his time with the Cardinals both LaRod Stephens-Howling and Patrick Petersen shined under Spencer. In 2010, Stephens-Howling led the NFL with 1,542 kickoff return yards and scored on returns of 102 yards and 96 yards. During his rookie year in 2011, Peterson tied an NFL record by returning four punt returns for touchdowns, becoming only the fourth player in league history to return four punt return scores in a season. Peterson also became the first player in NFL history to return four punts of 80-plus yards and his 99-yard punt return for a touchdown in overtime against the Rams is the second-longest in NFL history.
Named the NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2003, Spencer has a number of talented players competing for the kickoff and punt return duties in 2013. The question is which one of the players listed below can be effective not only as a returner, but can also perform on the coverage teams and their positions as well? Here is the list of the top three specialists competing to land the starting return spots.
Richard Goodman WR/KR
Entering his fourth year with the Chargers, Goodman appears to be a lock to make the team now that fellow receiver Denario Alexander is out for the season. Goodman’s 27.6 yard kick return average ranks fourth in the NFL over the past two years and his 105-yard kickoff return versus the Raiders in 2011 is the longest in franchise history.
Eddie Royal WR/KR/PR
As with Goodman, Alexander’s injury all but ensures Royal a roster spot because of his duel-threat abilities. When healthy, Royal’s explosiveness makes him a threat at both wide-out and inside as a slot receiver and prior to last season he has a career average of 11.9 yards per punt return. Entering his sixth NFL season, Royal has three career touchdowns as a return specialist – two on punt returns and one kickoff return.
Keenan Allen WR/KR/PR
Projected to be a first round pick prior to a knee injury late in his junior year, many ‘experts’ feel he could be the steal of the draft if he can stay healthy. A standout receiver for the Cal Berkley Bears, Allen left school after his junior season having caught a school-record 205 passes, for 2,570 yards (third in school history) and 17 touchdowns (seventh). Allen also averaged 12.0 yards as a punt returner and 22.6 on kickoffs for the Golden Bears. In just three seasons on campus he recorded 3,458 all-purpose yards.
The special teams unit will face a huge challenge this week as the team travels to Chicago to battle the Bears this Thursday night. Facing perhaps the best return specialist in NFL history in Devin Hester, it’s going to be interesting to see how much Spencer’s unit improves following a poor performance against the Seahawks. With roster spots on the line, who is going to step into the spotlight and prove to Mike McCoy that they are one of the best 53 players to keep on the final roster?