They are not alone, of course. One of the truest credos in the league is that yardage lost or gained by special teams play is often yardage either the offense or team will never be able to compensate for.
That’s what’s made the start of this season so encouraging for the Giants.
“I thought we played well in camp,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “I thought that some of the stability of our team in the preseason games was brought about by the special teams play. So our expectations are very high. The guys have done a good job of being excited about being on teams. I like the direction we are going in. From my standpoint it is about attitude and making everyone understand that their contribution is expected, not only offense and defense, but on special teams as well.
Giants rookie linebacker Chase Blackburn was barely a year old when Mike Sweatman’s career as an NFL special teams coach began with the Vikings in 1984.
So Blackburn knew to trust what he was hearing when his coaches tipped off the kick coverage team that the Saints might have something funky planned for their first return in their Monday Night game at Giants Stadium Sept. 19.
“The coaches put it into our heads, being that this was a Monday night game, that [a trick play] was something we should watch out for,” Blackburn said. “They said to watch for something, they wanted to show us and the other teams in the NFL, something to help them build momentum.”
For that reason, Blackburn was not surprised when Saints returner Michael Lewis suddenly veered left and handed the ball to Fred McAfee.
“Still, you don’t necessarily expect it on the first play,” Coughlin said.
Nor was anyone shocked that linebacker Nick Greisen and teammates were there to converge and strip the ball or that he was in position to jump on the fumble at the Saints 10.
“To me it was just a great effort from the whole team,” Blackburn explained. “We had a guy pinned in deep and they tried to run a reverse, thinking that we were all rookies. They were trying to do a little trick to us and we caught them in it and made a great hit and had a great strip. I was down there and just saw the ball and jumped on it. I should have picked it up and scored.”
Said Coughlin: “What a great way to start the game.”
Momentum is such an integral part of football and when Brandon Jacobs scored three plays later the Giants had a 7-0 lead and, as it turned out, total control of a very emotional evening.
“Special teams have been playing great this year; my hat goes off to them every week,” Jeremy Shockey said. “They make plays and they have to continue to do so and that’s just a sign of a team playing well together. That was a huge play.”
The contributions have been coming from all corners. Punter Jeff Feagles, one of the five most consistent players on the team, is off to another great season having broken Sean Landeta’s NFL records for attempts. Seven of his first 15 punts were downed inside the 20. Should he stay healthy he will snap Jim Marshall’s record for consecutive games when the Giants play at Seattle Nov. 27.
Punt return Chad Morton, signed just before the season began, has a 52-yard touchdown against the Cardinals and is averaging 11.6 yards a return.
Prior to Sunday’s game against the Rams, the Giants’ kickoff return team was again among the NFL’s best. At that point, Willie Ponder led the NFL with a 32.5-yard average and his 95-yard return against the Cardinals was not only the longest in the NFL this season, it was the only kickoff return touchdown in the league.
One of the reasons for the turnaround has been the work of Sweatman, one of the league’s most dynamic assistants. His unique personality has obviously lit a fire under his players.
“I think so, yeah,” Coughlin admitted. “I think he has got a lot of energy. He spreads it around pretty much in those meetings, too.”
One of the players caught up in it all is Jay Feely, the kicker. Not only did Feely convert his first five field goals – he was 14-for-14 counting the preseason – but he nearly put himself on injured reserve against the Saints trying to cover the opening kickoff.
Feely was bent backwards in the process, straining his back. He needed an injection in the locker room in order to continue.
“As a matter of fact, he was part of that group as a safety to recognize the reverse,” Coughlin said. “He’s a football player. Now the thing that I really think is important here in talking with him is we don’t want to spend that time on the sideline worried, you know, what his status is. And that may be the most important lesson as far as Jay goes is that his value as a safety on the kickoff team and we’re better off keeping his nose out of there unless he absolutely has to make the play.”
Should Feely decide to reign in his emotions – and there was no indication in San Diego that he’s inclined to do so – the remainder of the veterans supplementing special teams seem more than happy to compensate.
“We started this a little bit last year with the top kickoff return in the league,” linebacker Nick Greisen said. “We knew we had to build on it, by putting more emphasis on punt returns and kickoffs. And now we have Chad Morton and Jay Feely, who can boom it deep. And we have coverage guys who can race down the field and make plays. It’s always been a great emphasis for us. I can’t tell you right now that we’d play so well coming out of camp, but it was priority.
“There might be some players who feel they’re beyond playing on special teams, but when you look at it, it’s a team game. Special teams is a big part of the game, but people might not realize how much hidden yardage there is to gain. Every time you kick or punt there’s the extra added advantage of perhaps switching the momentum of the game.”