With the NFL entering the second half of the 2021 season, we wanted to take a deep dive into the Special Teams play and provide an objective analysis on those units that are helping their teams win games and those whose lack of production is hindering their team’s ability to reach their goals. While the performance of a team’s offensive and defensive units can be traced to a few specific categories, such as points scored/allowed or yardage gained/allowed, the evaluation of a Special Teams unit must be looked at across the spectrum of 6 phases.
In order to conduct this evaluation, two leading platforms were used to compile the data. First, we looked at the Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, which compares each unit’s production in each phase against the league average. Second, we used a system well known in the Special Teams community, the Gosselin Rankings. For years, Rick Gosselin, an extremely knowledgeable sports writer, has compiled a cumulative ranking of over 25 categories that influence special teams play. The value or rank in each category is added up and much like golf, the lowest number wins.
With that in mind, the Bottom-Line Up Front (BLUF) reveals the following:
Top 5 Special Teams Units:
- Kansas City Chiefs(1st)
- Buffalo Bills
- Baltimore Ravens
- San Francisco 49ers
- Cleveland Browns
Of the top 5 Special Teams Units, 3 (Kansas City, Buffalo, Baltimore) would be in the playoffs if they started as of this writing.
The Kansas City Chiefs hold the top spot due in part to their ability to cover kicks and make their kicks with one of the league’s best kickers in Harrison Butker.
- #2 – Opponent Kick Return Average / #5 – Opponent Drive Start
- #1 – Opponent Punt Return Average
- #1 – Point After Touchdown Percentage
- #12 – in Field Goal Percentage
The Buffalo Bills boast a similar Special Teams ranking, as they get it done as well in the kicking game with relative newcomer Tyler Bass out of Georgia Southern and with their return units
- #1 – Field Goal & Point After Touchdown Percentage
- #3 – Kickoff Return Average
- #13 – Punt Return Average
The top five units have Coordinators who have an average 10 years of Coordinating experience, with one team having a former Special Teams Coordinator (Ravens) as their head coach
Bottom 5 Special Teams Units:
- Houston Texans
- Denver Broncos
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Atlanta Falcons (32nd)
Of the bottom five Special Teams Units, only one, the Los Angeles Chargers, would be in the playoffs today.
In contrast to those teams who reside at the top, these units have generally struggled in various areas, from penalties, to covering kicks, to returning the ball to win the game of “Hidden Yardage.”
The 2021 version of the Chargers special teams’ unit is struggling in many areas, specifically their ability to cover punts, convert Point After Touchdowns and penalties:
- #32 – Opponent Punt Return average
- #30 – Net Punt
- #32 – Point After Touchdown percentage
- #27 – Penalties
Part of the Atlanta Falcons struggles come from their inability to cover kicks (Allowed KOR for TD vs Wash) and deliver the ball in the punt game (two punters used this year / Blocked Punt vs Dallas).
- #28 – Opponent Kickoff Return Average
- #31 – Opponent Drive Start
- #28 – Opponent Punt Return Average
- #23 – Gross Punt Average
- #25 – Net Punt Average
The bottom five units employ Special Teams Coordinators who have an average of 2.5 years of Coordinating experience, with three teams having first time coordinators.
While these rankings are not an exact science, they do provide a snapshot of how impactful — positively or negatively — a special teams unit can be to a team’s overall success. These rankings can be volatile, as a big return, blocked kick or game changing play can move the needle rather quickly.
As winter settles in, especially for those teams playing games where the weather will become more and more of a factor, this phase of the game will be crucial for success. Finally, keep in mind that in the last four years, of the teams that have finished in the BOTTOM FIVE of Special Teams Rankings (20 Teams), only four were able to make it to the playoffs.