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Patriots Midseason Report Card: Special Teams and Coaches

Patriots Midseason Report Card
Special Teams and Coaches

During his postgame press conferences, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick often refers to "all three phases of the game": offense, defense and special teams. Special teams may play a small percentage of the plays over the course of a game, but they can be some of the most important.

Games can come down to a field goal. A big return can give your offense a short field to score or your defense a short field to defend. A touchback can be the difference between a team starting from their 20 and running one back for a score. An onside kick can win a game. A coverage team that pins opponents inside the 10 can be just as valuable as a great pass rush.

But guess what? There are four phases to the game. Coaching is just as big as the other three. It's about preparation, game-planning, teaching, decision-making. A superbly talented team (like San Diego) might not be nearly as good as they could be with insufficient coaching.

Special Teams: A

To put it bluntly, the Patriots have among the best overall special teams in the league, and that has not always been the case. The place kicker position has been solid if not the best in the league most years. The return game has periodically been a better weapon than some of the running backs and receivers.

But the punters have been inconsistent at best. The good ones were often injured. The bad ones just didn't get the job done. And the coverage teams were sometimes among the weakest links on the whole team.

This year, almost every unit is excelling. Almost.

Kickers: B

Stephen Gostkowski: B+

With 79 points (11 field goals, 46 extra points), Gostkowski is 3rd in the league in scoring, mostly due to those 46 extra points which by far leads the league. "The Kid" hasn't attempted a lot of field goals, just 12, but his only miss was a 41-yarder in the second game of the season. He made a 45-yarder against Dallas to give New England a 31-24 lead, and he's perfect inside 40 yards.

No, he doesn't have incredible accuracy from great distance. Few kickers do. But he does have power on kickoffs. First of all, because of New England's scoring proficiency, Gostkowski leads the league in kickoffs with 66, 8 more than Dallas's Nicholas Folk. That might explain why Belichick doesn't have him kick field goals at every opportunity. Kickers' legs can fatigue.

Gostkowski is among the league leaders in touchbacks at 21.2 percent (14 total), but he's also pooched 2 out of bounds -- that's a big no-no. Overall, for a second-year kicker, he's doing pretty well. We'll keep an eye on him as the weather turns.

Chris Hanson: C

As Gostkowski leads the league in kickoffs because of the offense's proficiency, so Hanson has the fewest punts (21) of any full time punter. He's also has the lowest raw average (41.1 yards per punt), but that is somewhat affected by where on the field the team punts from. His net average is better (37.3, 18th), and that's partially a function of the coverage team, which is excellent. Eight of his 21 are inside the 20, just 3 have been touchbacks.

Hanson hasn't shown any special ability to punt directionally or drop and kill a punt inside the 5 like Josh Miller used to. The Patriots haven't needed to depend on him, and that's just as well. Giving him the "C" might be generous.

Returners: A

Wes Welker: B

Welker is a top 10 returner (for players with at least five returns), and he threatens to break one almost every time he touches the ball. For the most part, he's made good decisions, though he's fumbled once. He's fair caught only three of 20 returns, and he's broken four for between 20 and 40 yards, none longer. Welker also has a half-dozen kick returns, and he's 10th in the league in average there, too.

Ellis Hobbs: A+

While it was inadvisable, it's hard to argue with results. Hobbs's 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was one of the more exciting plays of the season -- for anyone. Hobbs broke another return for 40-plus yards, too. His 28.2 yards per return is among the best in the league (again, for players with more than a handful of returns). Hobbs is considered dangerous enough that teams have attempted to avoid kicking to him whenever possible. In a situation similar to Randy Moss, you pick your poison. Kicking away from Hobbs might not be the best idea in the world either.

I should have taken away the "+" though. Hobbs has a fumble.

Willie Andrews: A

With just two returns to his credit, Andrews technically leads the league in average, because one of his returns is a 77-yard touchdown. The other is a 24-yarder, giving him an average of 50.5 yards per return. Andrews doesn't get a lot of opportunities, but he tends to make the most of them.

Coverage: B+

In no particular order, several players are helping the Patriots win the field-position battle. Pierre Woods leads the team in special teams tackles with 11; Brandon Meriweather is second with 10. Among other key players: Larry Izzo, Rashad Baker, Eric Alexander, Kelley Washington, Kyle Eckel,Mel Mitchell.

Others: A

Lonie Paxton deserves a nod as a reliable and mistake-free long-snapper.

Coaches: A+

I can't grade them all. Really, with seeing so little of what any of them do day-to-day, I can only grade them based on player performance. But the top dogs are more visible, and you can read more of their impact based on overall unit performance.

Bill Belichick: A+

Belichick is the best there is. I don't think I've ever seen him out-coached. Ever.

The Patriots, top to bottom, are always prepared. Prepared like few teams in the league ever are, and the Patriots always are. That includes a little-regarded efficiency in preparing the rest of his coaches, and they the players. You cannot avoid the sense that there is a purpose, a motive, to every detail, and few details (if any) are overlooked.

The overall game plans this season have been virtually flawless, and the players have been properly prepared and motivated to execute them accordingly.

Belichick admits to the coaches, including himself, making many mistakes during the games. Few of them have been glaring, and most of them are the kind only he would recognize -- though I'm sure he points them out on film days.

Josh McDaniels: A

McDaniels took a lot of heat when Charlie Weis left. His game plans weren't creative enough. He called too many "boring" plays. Weis would have David Patten catch, run and throw all in the same game. McDaniels wasn't like that.

He's still not. He's learned a lot in the last couple years, but he hasn't really changed his style. Of course, he is the beneficiary of suddenly possessing one of the best receiving corps in the league fed by the best quarterback in the league.

Stiil, he's called some fantastic games, no doubt with some guidance from above (that would be Belichick). Even the Colts game, in which many felt he called too many running plays with the Patriots trailing, he stuck to the plan, and the plan ultimately worked. New England wore down the Colts defense, and when they committed to the run, McDaniels worked the pass.

Dean Pees: A+

Like McDaniels, it was a task for Pees to earn himself an identity. Romeo Crennel was part of the triumvirate, and then there was Belichick-to-be Eric Mangini. Pees is also benefiting from a roster of extreme talent, but getting that talent to work well together isn't always easy. Fortunately, Crennel and Mangini (and Belichick) set a firm foundation.

But when you look at the defensive grades I posted earlier, and you especially look at the opponents' score-by-quarter table, you can see that this defense is playing as well as they ever did under those previous coordinators -- despite "aging."

Brad Seely: A

When Adam Vinatieri left for the comfy confines of a domed career, many fans thought it may be one of the signs of the Apocalypse. After last season, they doubted Gostkowski could replace No. 4 (I still want to know who got that license plate and how he/she feels about it). But Seely worked with Gostkowski, and he's helped turn him into something more than serviceable.

Seely has also produced a dangerous return game, possibly being responsible for making key personnel changes, and both coverage teams are much improved over past years. It might not be all Seely's doing, but there's no doubt he deserves some measure of credit.