Castillo: Don’t ignore special teams

Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. That’s the motto in football.

Then there are special teams, which aren’t treated all that special.

Constant dissections of offenses and defenses are featured in the never-ending analysis on TV and the Web, while special teams play is the overlooked facet of each and every football game.

To a certain extent it makes sense.

Besides returning kicks and punts, being on a special teams unit isn’t glamorous. Kids grow up dreaming of catching the game-winning pass in the corner of the end zone, not long-snapping or punting a ball inside the 20. Star players don’t waste their energy or risk injury in punt coverage or blocking on field goals. That’s beneath them. Instead, most special teamers are backups searching for playing time wherever they can find it. And if you are on special teams, staying out of the spotlight usually means you’re doing your job. Just like a referee, an anonymous long snapper is the best long snapper.

But special teams can make or break games — and careers. Ask former Miami Dolphins special teams coach Darren Rizzi.

Less than 12 hours after New England’s Patrick Chung humiliated the Dolphins with a blocked punt and field goal last week in the Patriots’ 41-14 win on Monday Night Football, the Dolphins fired Rizzi.

A similar fate may be on the horizon for the San Diego Chargers’ special teams coach Steve Crosby. Sunday the Oakland Raiders blocked two San Diego punts in the game’s first five minutes, which directly led to nine Raider points in Oakland’s eight-point win.

Then there’s the impact closer to home.

On paper, the Yale football team should be undefeated. The offense is averaging 26 points per game and the defense has held its own since allowing 35 points in the season opener against Georgetown. Instead, the Bulldogs sit at 3–1 — and could very well be 1–3 — due to what head coach Tom Williams called a “crisis” after losing to Albany. Williams was referring to his team’s performance on special teams, of course.

In their 23–20 loss to Albany two Saturdays ago, the Bulldogs had a punt blocked that resulted in a Great Dane touchdown, a blocked field goal, and a blocked extra point. Those 11 points were more than the difference.

You could say the Great Danes had a particularly great day on special teams. But Yale’s struggles in other games suggest it’s a problem the Bulldogs need to fix if they hope to remain atop the Ivy League standings.

Against Georgetown, the Elis surrendered a 54-yard kickoff return that set up a touchdown and an 85-yard touchdown return to begin the second half.

Two weeks later came the debacle against Albany; this past Saturday against Dartmouth was more of the same. The Bulldogs had an extra point blocked and missed two field goals to make the Elis 0-for-6 in field goal attempts for the season before first-time starter Philippe Panico ’13 knocked the game-winner in off the right upright from 19 yards out as time expired.

The blocked extra point alone would’ve made the last-second heroics unnecessary. It makes for great drama, but Tom Williams and the rest of his staff, particularly special teams coach Rod Plummer, could do without it.

This special teams trouble has had a direct effect on Williams’ decision-making, which has been notoriously unpredictable in his short time in New Haven and was again in his team’s win over Georgetown. Instead of calling a timeout and attempting a short field 19-yard field goal to conclude the game-winning drive, Williams decided to go with a risky quarterback sneak simply because he didn’t trust his field goal unit. If Patrick Witt ’12 didn’t find the end zone Williams would’ve followed his fourth-and-22 fake-punt call to end the 2009 season with another fiasco to begin 2010.

Special teams may never be credited with selling tickets or winning championships but, as Yale may soon find out, special teams play could be the difference between an Ivy League title and another mediocre finish.

Jorge Castillo is a senior in Davenport College and a former sports editor for the News.

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