Mike Singletary said last week that he might hold three or four roster spots for core special teams players. For those in the blogosphere who make a yearly habit out of trashing our ST captain Michael Robinson’s worth, they can now mark down next year on their calendars for trashing him again (sorry Unca_Chuck). He’s a lock to make the 53 man roster, suit up every game, and bang heads on every punt and kickoff by us and by the opponent.
That’s a lot of plays, folks, where somebody’s got to block or tackle. Especially by a team that led the league in 3 and out offensive possessions in 2009. Of course, the 49ers will not lead the league in that category this year, but there will still be either a punt or a kickoff following every offensive or defensive series by either team. Just less punting by us, presumably, and more kickoffs.
On average, each team has around 12 possessions per game. Unless there is a fumble or interception, each possession is preceded by a ST play and postceded by one. Ergo dipso flactus, a core special teams player like Robinson will have a vital role in 20+ plays per game. Most of these plays also involve big fat chunks of NFL territory known as yards. Twenty plus on average kickoffs and ten or so on punts. Sometimes these fat chunks are wall-to-wall efforts resulting in game changing, momentum turning LeRoy Vann 5-4-3-2-1 Specials. Serious events that can get you an extra win or two during the course of a season.
For comparison, a WR has a good game if he has 5 or more catches and throws a nice block or two. An RB getting 15 or more “touches” and a couple of key blocks on a blitzer is also credited with a good game. Special Teams guys are like offensive linemen. Nobody pays any attention to them unless they screw up. But without them, you have roadkill for a team.
I confess, it wasn’t until I began doing this site and had to scrounge furiously in the closets and attics of the old noggin bean for topic ideas that I ever paid much attention to special teams play. During the Walsh/Montana years, the glut of scoring tended to obscure the importance of special teams, unless Ray Wersching clanked a FG which cost us a game. Kickoffs and punts were just something to get out of the way without a fumble, so Joe Cool and the boys could march down the field and throw up 6 points.
But now that I have this ST material on my desk and am poking at it like a CSI investigator at a crime scene, I have new found respect. Not enough to know the terminology for each of the eleven players on this squad or what exactly they do except bang around and hope something gives or gets. But I’m getting there. One of the positions is called “gunner”, I think. The military terminology just keeps on coming with the NFL.
At any rate, three or four roster spots?! Does this mean the 49ers will be cutting like a real player to keep a part-timer? Or is Singletary just giving out the message loud and clear to those players without guaranteed roster spots that they had better be busting their dangling appendages on special teams if they want to stick around? The latter choice smacks of “motivational ploy”, a Singletary strong suit, so I’m going with it. We’ll keep all real players, but when it comes to 2nd and 3rd stringers, whose value by definition is less than top notch, “real” will also be sifted and balanced with “foams at the mouth while punt is in the air”.
In fact, these core ST players will have more value than five real players on the roster who do not suit up for a game and are on the roster mostly for way down deep in the basement depth or maybe he’ll be good in two or three years hope (see Cody Wallace, 2 years, career stats, 0 — not even good enough to suit up and play ST). What the blogosphere tends to howl about, however, is a guy we cut, like Thomas Clayton, being a better RB than Robinson, in effect saying a 3rd string RB who wouldn’t suit up is better to keep than a 3rd string RB who will suit up.
This year, for example, you have Scot McKillop and Matt Wilhelm both battling for the same backup inside linebacker spot and neither of them likely to play even one down on defense this year. Last year, they both were on the roster. Then we drafted Navorro Bowman in the 3rd round, so one of these two guys now has to go. Wilhelm is probably, at this time, a better inside linebacker than sophomore player McKillop, but is not as good on special teams. Adios Matt. There’s plenty of work in the NFL for experienced inside linebackers, so have a nice year in Cleveland.
Okay, that’s two of the “3 or 4” core ST guys. Excuse me while I hmmmmmm a little more looking for the mystery 3rd, and possibly fourth guy.