The New England Patriots’ 2020 offseason was one of turnover. But while the departure Tom Brady and the Coronavirus opt-outs led by Dont’a Hightower dominated the headlines, the team also had to adapt to some major changes on its coaching staff. One of which was special teams coach Joe Judge, who also worked with the wide receivers in 2019, leaving to take over as the New York Giants’ next head coach.
The Patriots were prepared to handle Judge’s departure, however: Cam Achord, his assistant of the previous two years, took over the kicking game unit, with Joe Houston being brought aboard to assist him.
With Achord’s first year leading the unit now in the books, the reviews are in — and they are certainly positive: New England was able to field one of the NFL’s best special teams groups week-in and week-out, helping out a struggling offense and inconsistent defense throughout the Patriots’ disappointing 7-9 campaign.
Achord’s role in this cannot be underestimated, and it helped New England keep its string of solid special teams performances alive. This fact was also not lost on the team’s captain, Matthew Slater.
“We’ve been really fortunate here. When you look at the lineage that we’ve had at that spot, going back to Brad Seely when he was here,” Slater said after the Patriots’ season ended earlier this months. “But certainly Scott O’Brien and the way he taught Joe and the way Joe taught Cam, there’s a lot of consistency there. Cam has always been a sponge, he’s a great listener, and I think he takes input.
“And then he’s just a great coach. He coaches hard. He coaches me as hard as he coaches some of our rookies, which I appreciate: I want to be coached. I think he did a great job of handling that. It was a learning year for all of us, just dealing with WebEx and all of that. It was a learning year for all of us and we tried to grow. I think that Cam did a great job stepping into his role and leading us with authority and also leading us with a listening ear.”
Achord first arrived in New England in 2018, after having served numerous roles at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, running backs coach, tight ends coach, recruiting coordinator, you name it. Also one of his roles: special teams coordinator. Two years later, he was elevated to just that position in New England as well.
However, he attributed the Patriots’ success less to his coaching prowess but rather the team’s investments in the game’s proverbial third phase.
“It’s the investment that Coach puts into special teams at practice, in the meetings. It’s not just a third phase — it’s an equal phase. Anybody we need for the units we will use,” Achord said. “We have high expectations. We push the guys to meet them and they respond very well. It starts at the top with the coach and goes on to the players, the veteran guys that we have, who pass it on to the young guys. That’s what allows you to continually do this at a high level.”
New England’s kicking game crew certainly performed at a high level in 2020.
Punter Jake Bailey and punt returner Gunner Olszewski were named first-team All-Pro for the first time in their respective careers. Matthew Slater made his ninth Pro Bowl and, as a second-teamer, his seventh total All-Pro squad. Nick Folk was one of the most reliable place kickers in football. Others such as long snapper Joe Cardona, and four-unit players Justin Bethel and Cody Davis also played a big role in the Patriots’ success.
“If you look at the way we build our roster, we certainly put a heavy emphasis on that and that’s an area we look to excel in every year,” said Slater. “We hope to be successful so that our team can be successful, and that’s always going to be the goal for us. It’s obviously disappointing that we came up short in that regard, but I’m proud of the way that those guys played.
“Certainly, Cam and Joe did a good job — Cam’s first year calling the plays. I think he had us ready and prepared, with a lot of confidence each and every week. Joe’s a great assistant, giving us helpful tips, always having us prepared. It was a lot of fun being part of that group, proud of those guys. It’s always easy when you’re working with great people.”