BGA Weekly: Not So Special

Bent , TheJetsBlog.com

Now that the season is over, I’ll be writing analysis articles each week until the beginning of the league year and also during the period between the draft and training camp. I’ll be breaking down some of the data from the 2012 season and revisiting some of the things I wrote about over the last two offseasons to see if any patterns identified at the time have continued or if any new patterns have developed.

In this week’s BGA, I’m going to talk about special teams. Clearly 2012 was a disappointing season for this unit in Mike Westhoff’s farewell season.

For additional perspective on special teams, listen to Corey and Bassett on this week’s TJB Podcast here.

After the jump, I’m going to be looking at the personnel usage on special teams to give some insight into who were the key special teams contributors. I’ll also look at production on the coverage units and assess how well Robert Malone punted in his first season with the Jets.

Introduction

Coach Westhoff’s swansong was anything but the fairytale ending he no doubt anticipated when he made the decision to stay on for one more year last January. It’s impossible to know how much of a factor he was, but conspiracy theorists will wonder whether his heart was in it. Maybe the team tuned him out, knowing he wouldn’t be back next year. Maybe he saw things going downhill and couldn’t motivate himself to get things turned around. Given Westhoff’s exemplary reputation, that seems unlikely. People will also wonder if his replacement (Ben Kotwica) was involved in the coaching more than in the past and if that had a detrimental effect.

While this is a valid discussion, my sense all year was that they had so many injuries (including many under-the-radar low-profile absences) that this would have meant the special teams unit was in a permanent state of flux, constantly cycling guys into unfamiliar roles. It’s a scary thought, but maybe if it weren’t for Westhoff’s coaching acumen, things could have been even worse.

In recent years, it’s been almost a reflex action to describe any special teams breakdowns as “uncharacteristic”, but last year it was extraordinary for the Jets to get through a whole game without some kind of blunder. There were too many to list: Blocked kicks, long returns, fumbles in the return game … it seemed like every week there was a costly setback and not many big special teams plays of their own to offset against these.

In looking at the personnel, which was clearly weakened by all the injuries, it’s worth considering who were the main participators on special teams in 2012 and if any of the key contributors will need to be replaced.

Usage

Using my own game charts and data from NFL.com, I compiled special teams participation details for each Jets player in 2012. This lists, as accurately as possible, how many plays they were on the field for.

Seven guys were on the field for more than 200 special teams plays. Two, Eric Smith (266) and Lex Hilliard (203) will almost certainly not be back next season. Three linebackers led the way – Demario Davis with 348, Nick Bellore with 317 and Garrett McIntyre with 296. Ellis Lanskter and Josh Bush were also out there for more than 200. It’s not just backups that contribute though – David Harris was out there for 134 plays. Even Mike DeVito saw action on over 100 special teams plays, including some as an offensive lineman on the kicking unit.

Not everyone contributes. Key contributors that never saw the field on special teams included Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes. Of course those last two only played a handful of games between them (and Holmes has occasionally returned kicks in the past). Most defensive regulars end up at least getting some reps with the field goal defense. On that unit, you would usually find most of the defensive starters will stay on the field. For most of the season the Jets rested LaRon Landry in these situations (although by the end of the year, he was covering kicks at times). On that unit, you might occasionally get someone making an effort to block the kick, but for some players these reps can constitute merely standing in position and watching the ball sail over your head. That’s not quite as taxing as running full speed 50 yards or more downfield to cover a kick, so perhaps not all special teams contributions should be considered equal.

Within those units, there are some interesting points to note. The punting unit for example is an interesting one. The offensive line essentially consisted of long snapper Tanner Purdum and whichever backup linebackers were on the active roster (usually Bellore, McIntyre and Davis along with whoever was active out of Josh Mauga, Ricky Sapp or Marcus Dowtin). When Bellore caught that pass against the Colts, he was actually lined up at right tackle, but the Jets must have declared him eligible and ran with an unbalanced line.

Special teams participation can be valuable to lower paid players because it can make a big difference to their overall playing time percentage which factors into the calculation of their share of the Performance Based Pool. This is a $3.6m fund that each team distributes between all its players every March based on a complicated formula that rewards low-paid players who get plenty of playing time most of all. For a guy like Bush, who hardly played on defense, this could be worth over $60,000 to him, which for a guy only earning the minimum salary in each of his first four seasons is not an insignificant sum.

Production: Coverage Units

For the purposes of tracking special teams tackles, I have used data from PFF, which is notoriously more accurate than the official data from the NFL, where they’ve been known to credit players with the tackle who aren’t even on the field.

The leading tackler on the coverage units this year was Davis, with 10 solo tackles (although if we’re factoring in assists, Josh Bush had three of those to go along with eight solo tackles for a team-leading total of 11). Bellore was just behind Davis with nine solo tackles (and one assist). That actually represented a drop-off for Bellore, who had 15 solo tackles on special teams in 2011, which was good for third in the league.

The most distressing drop-off came from Eric Smith, who – as noted above – is still a consistent participator on special teams but is a guy who I’ve been saying for a while hasn’t been having the same kind of impact on special teams as he did a few years ago. In 2009, Smith had 16 special teams solo tackles. That dropped to 12 in 2010, six in 2011 and last year he had just two tackles, one of which wasn’t until the last game of the season. However, going by some of the comments made when he was released last week, people still consider him to be a key contributor on special teams. I’d suggest this is nowhere near the kind of loss people are suggesting.

In terms of potential replacements for Smith, Bush and Antonio Allen combined for 14 total tackles on just 13 more special teams plays than it took Smith to compile two, so hopefully the Jets are in good shape in terms of the special teams contributions from their safety position – even if they bring in (or back) a veteran that will play almost exclusively on defense.

Punting

Regular BGA readers will be well aware of my ANPP punting metric which analyzes punter performance more accurately than any standard punting statistics (or combinations thereof) by expressing each punt as a percentage of an expected maximum, which should account for good directional punting and how often a punter outkicks his coverage. For details on the calculation go here but essentially what you need to know is that 70 is considered elite, 60 is considered not good enough to retain your job and every punter’s expected ANPP should fall somewhere on that scale (with 65 being about average).

First we consider the raw punting statistics and can note that Malone set a Jets franchise record with a 45.8 yard net. (Staggeringly, despite being a franchise record, this was only good for 19th in the league). His net average, however, was just 39.4, which is below average. That suggests that his directional punting and return mitigation was below par, although a low net can also be a product of the fact that a lot of drives stall near midfield, so there may have been a lot of good punts which can still have a negative effect on net average.

He was 12th in the league for most return yards allowed, slightly below average, and didn’t have a good ratio of kicks inside the 20 compared with touchbacks (just under 4:1). However, several other punters, including Shane Lechler and Mat McBriar had an even worse ratio and ex-Jet Steve Weatherford (considered one of the best directional punters in the league) was only just ahead of him at just over 4:1. He also posted the second best punt of the year in terms of hang time, but was one of only four punters in the league to have more than one punt blocked. We’ll see how these numbers combine to give us his ANPP for the year in a few paragraphs.

First, for perspective, let’s go back over some recent ANPP numbers:

Ben Graham 2008 – 58% (lost job)
Reggie Hodges 2008 – 61%
Steve Weatherford 2009 – 64%
Steve Weatherford 2010 – 68% (but only 55% in the postseason)
TJ Conley 2011 – 66%

Having worked out the numbers for Malone, his 2012 season ended up with him at 66.5%. This represents a slight upgrade over TJ Conley last season and is slightly better than Steve Weatherford’s average in his two seasons here.

In fact, with a couple of games to go, his numbers were even better, but he allowed Michael Spurlock to return one for a touchdown and put his last two kicks of the year in the end zone. Entering Week 16, he was actually at 68.5% which would have represented the best punting performance by a Jets kicker since I’ve been tracking these numbers had he sustained it over the last two games.

Kicking

Nick Folk is an unrestricted free agent and rumor has it that the Jets could be set to pursue someone cheaper. He hasn’t done a bad job with the Jets and never really cost them any games, but has always been streaky as a field goal kicker and isn’t very good at kicking off.

His kicking off wasn’t bad in 2011, as the Jets’ opponents started at the 20.7 yard line, 6th in the league for anyone with more than 50 kickoffs. However, his numbers – of course partially due to the coverage units – regressed in 2012, as the average start line was 21.5 (which is below average) and he had five fewer touchbacks than in 2011, ending up with the fewest touchbacks of any kicker with more than 50 kickoffs.

As for his field goal kicking, his overall success rate has been acceptable, but there has been a trend since the end of the 2008 season. Since then, he has made a phenomenal 45 of 49 field goals in Weeks 1-7, but only 43 of 70 (just 61%) in Week 8 or after. That wasn’t a trend in the early part of his career – he made 13 of 13 after week 7 in 2008 – but it has been ever since his hip surgery that offseason. Maybe the cold weather is a factor – over the last three years, he makes 97% of his field goals when the temperature is above 60 degrees, but only 65% when it is below that.

To be fair to Folk, two of those missed kicks in 2012 were blocked and some were long range kicks, but it’s still not an encouraging pattern and one the team is no doubt aware of.

Return Game

Jeremy Kerley smashed the NFL’s all-time fair catch record, which is a sign of his tentativeness when fielding punts. He constantly seemed to field punts that seemed destined to bounce into the end zone, left punts that needed to be fielded and waved for a fair catch when it appeared he had room to run. After a season that began in such promising fashion for him following a touchdown return in the opener against the Bills, he made too many handling errors and seemed to lose all confidence. That, coupled with his emergence as an offensive threat last year, should mean the Jets look to replace him next year.

Another guy who could get a bigger role on offense next year is Joe McKnight. However, if he does continue to return kicks, then he has put up some impressive numbers. The Jets’ official site reported that McKnight’s two-year kick return average of 29.4 yards per runback was the best in the NFL since Gale Sayers in 1965/66. Should he make the team, Royce Adams (who was the number five cornerback in camp until he tore up his knee) is one potential option to return kicks if the Jets do decide to increase McKnight’s role on offense (or even defense!)

Conclusions

It’s difficult to tell where last year’s special teams unit fell apart. Even if my theory is correct that all the forced chopping and changing had an adverse effect, that still makes it difficult to assess how good this special teams unit could be when fully healthy and we have no idea how well the new coordinator will fare as Westhoff’s replacement.

It’s therefore difficult to draw too many overriding conclusions for this article, but hopefully you learned a few things you did not realize about those oft-overlooked units in this article. Feel free to expand the discussion in the comments to anything special teams related.

I’ll be back next weekend with something else. I’ve got several articles in the works, but if there’s anything you’d like me to investigate or revisit, let me know in the comments.