The New England Patriots’ 2020 season was a disappointment: the team went just 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Despite all of that, however, the team still has some positives to look back on and build upon heading into the new year. Look no further than the kicking game: despite a change atop the coaching staff, the Patriots’ special teams units were among the best and most consistent in the NFL all season long.
Not only did the kicking game operation play a major role in the Patriots being competitive in the field position battle despite a struggling offense, it also contributed points: the unit scored two touchdowns. All in all, New England performed well across the board — with two members of the unit being voted first-team All-Pro after the season.
As a result, the Patriots’ special teams units received high grades by the experts as Pat Thorman of Establish the Run recently pointed out on Twitter. He compared the grades the league’s 32 teams have received in the kicking game by three different outlets — veteran sports writer Rick Gosselin as well as advanced analytics websites Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders — and ranked them based on the results.
No team finished with a higher average score than the Patriots:
While Pro Football Focus has New England ranked just 11th, both Football Outsiders and Gosselin have the Patriots’ special teams units as the best in the NFL. Gosselin’s list in particular is worth taking a look at considering that he is a respected figure in media circles when it comes to evaluating special teams play, something that has also been pointed out by head coach Bill Belichick in the past.
He released his list earlier this week on the Talk of Fame Network, and had to say the following about New England’s standing at number one:
The Patriots claimed two of the five Pro Bowl spots devoted to special teams in the AFC, punter Jake Bailey and coverage ace Matthew Slater. In addition, Gunner Olszewski was voted first-team all-pro as the punt returner by the Associated Press. Coverage ace Justin Bethel and kicker Nick Folk have been to past Pro Bowls and Joe Cardona has provided six seasons of stability as New England’s deep snapper. This is a seasoned group that expects to perform and does. ...
New England finished in first or with a share of first in six of the 22 categories this season and second in another. There were five other Top 5 finishes by the Patriots and three more in the Top 10. That’s 15 Top 10 finishes in the 22 categories. All punting aspects were a strength with Bailey. The Patriots also blocked two kicks and scored two touchdowns on returns of a punt and a blocked field goal.
As mentioned above, the Patriots accomplished all of this despite losing long-time kicking game coach Joe Judge ahead of the 2020 season: Judge left to take over as the New York Giants’ next head coach. In turn, his assistant of the past three years, Cam Achord, was elevated to the vacant role. The transition went quite smoothly when judged by how well New England performed in the kicking game throughout the season.
While not all worked equally well — the kick return game had its ups and downs — some key aspects helped the Patriots capture the spot as the best special teams organization in football: punter Jake Bailey and punt returner Gunner Olszewski were outstanding, as was place kicker Nick Folk; the coverage units led by Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel also played its part.
There are some unknowns heading into the 2021 offseason with both Folk and Bethel scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency, but the team has built a solid foundation through the years. Don’t be surprised if New England again features some quality special teams play next year.