The Specialists: Kickers, Punters, and Blocking the Kick
You might think that the kicking team would be considered part of the offense. Perhaps it should be, as they are trying to score points. However, the kicking unit, as well as the players who return kicks, are considered separate from both offense and defense. Kick and kick return units are called the special teams.
Usually, especially in college and the NFL, players on the special teams are not starters on offense or defense. These units have special, separate practice times. Watch a game closely. When it's time for a punt or a field goal, you'll see mass substitutions as the special teams run onto the field.
The Importance of Special Teams
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel tells his team that the punt is the most important play in football. Think of how much yardage is traded in just a single punt—nearly half the field! Think about how big a deal it is for a team to block a punt or to return one for a touchdown. That can change a game.
On a kickoff, the kicking team not only has to kick the ball way down the field, but they also have to tackle anyone who tries to return the kick. The techniques used by members of the kicking team are similar to those of a defense: avoid blocks, get in position, and make a tackle. Positioning is even more important on a kickoff than on a regular play because the players are so spread out.
When a kick returner catches the ball, he can usually run 10–15 yards before he comes anywhere near a tackler. The tacklers have to run very fast and stay away from blockers until they get near the returner. Then they have to position themselves so the returner can't get away.
A tackle on a kickoff usually isn't made by one person flying full speed in the open field. It's usually made by a whole bunch of tacklers closing in until they can make the play together.
Words to Know
TOUCHBACK: The best kickoff results in a touchback. If the kick goes into the end zone, the offense gets the ball at the 20-yard line. If the ball doesn't go into the end zone, the kick returner can usually get past the 20.
COFFIN CORNER: The best possible punt will go out of bounds but will not get into the end zone for a touchback. Punters often practice aiming their punts so they'll go out of bounds inside the 5-yard line. Such a punt is called a coffin corner punt.
Good kickoffs go high, deep, and toward one side of the field. The higher the kick, the longer the kicking team has to run down the field to get in the right position. By kicking to one side, the kicking team reduces the amount of field they have to cover. But the kicker has to be careful. If the kick goes out of bounds, the return team gets the ball in good field position.
At the same time that the kicking team tries to tackle the kick returner, the members of the return team are trying to block for the returner. Blocking on a kick return is more difficult than on a regular play. Positioning is incredibly important.
A blocker tries to get in between the defender and the returner to push the defender away. That's harder than it sounds because the defenders are all running as fast as they can. It's unlikely that a blocker will knock anyone down; rather, blockers try to push, shove, and use their hands to make the defender go the wrong way.
The kicking, tackling, and return strategies for punts are similar to those on kickoffs. There are a few main differences:
Before the punting team runs downfield, they have to block to protect the punter. Their most important job is to prevent the punt from being blocked. Only after the punt is kicked should the team race to tackle the returner
If a punt goes out of bounds, the receiving team gets the ball right where it left the field. So it's usually a good idea to boom a punt out of bounds—then no one can return it!
The gunners: Usually the punting team lines up two fast players near the sidelines. These are the gunners, who don't bother protecting the punter. At the snap, the gunners race downfield as if they were in kickoff coverage. Problem is, the return team is allowed to line up right across from the gunners.
The gunners have to find a way around one or two players who are trying to bump, push, and hit them. Try watching the gunners next time you see a punt to see the kinds of moves they make to get themselves down the field.
Field Goals and Extra Points
If all goes right, a field goal or an extra point should be routine. The long snapper gets the ball to the holder, who puts the ball down for the kicker to kick. The only reason these plays look easy is that teams practice them over and over and over.
The Long Snapper
On many teams, the long snapper is not the regular center. His primary job is to snap the football back quickly and accurately to the holder. He should block after he lets the snap go, but blocking is far less important than the accuracy of the snap. The long snapper practices snaps for hours each week. In fact, there are special summer camps dedicated just to long snapping skills! Fans rarely see the name of the long snapper, but he's the next most important player on special teams behind the punter or kicker. If a kick goes bad, it's probably because of a less-than-perfect snap.
It seems like a whole lot of kick returns result in penalties for illegal blocks. Kick return blockers cannot block below the waist or in the back. If they do, the penalty is 10 yards from the spot of the illegal block. Therefore, it's better just to let someone make a tackle than to make an illegal block on him.
The holder is usually also a team's quarterback or punter. He stoops on one knee, ready to catch the snap and place the ball on the ground. Ideally, he puts the ball straight up and down, with the laces pointing away from the kicker.
The Bills and Ace Ventura
In Super Bowl XXV, Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a field goal that would have won the game. On that kick, the holder put the laces the wrong way. In the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, one of the characters is a kicker who, like Norwood, missed an important kick partially because the holder held the ball wrong.
Years ago, kickers ran straight up to the ball and kicked it with their toe. In the 1970s, kickers figured out that the ball goes farther if it's kicked from the side, like a soccer player kicks. This kicking technique is called soccer style. Good high school kickers can consistently kick the ball through the uprights from at least 30 to 35 yards. In college and in the pros, kickers have to be accurate from much farther away. In fact, NFL kickers routinely hit 50-yard field goals.
You might have practiced kicking before. If you used a kicking tee and if you approached the ball at a full sprint, you might have been able to kick the ball a long way, maybe even 30 or more yards. So you can kick field goals for a college team, right? Well, you weren't really kicking a field goal.
Kicking tees are only allowed for kickoffs, and NFL kickers can kick the ball 60–80 yards on a kickoff. For a field goal, the ball must be held on the ground. Making it even more difficult, the kicker has to kick a field goal quickly, before the defense can rush in to block it.
The kicker actually starts the run-up to the kick before the holder is holding the ball! On a kickoff, the kicker might run 10–15 yards on his runup, but he only gets 5–7 yards for a field goal.