Special Teams: Can they win you an important football game??

All Pro safety in 1986, Derron Cherry was a regular on Frank Gansz special teams.

How often do you hear NFL, collegiate, or even high school football coaches say that “Special teams is a third of the game”?? Then rarely use their special teams as more than a field position element of the game. Aside from the Chicago Bears of recent years with Devin Hester, very few use their special teams as a weapon. Nor do most teams use their superstars on this third unit. Well in 1986, the Kansas City Chiefs fielded the best special teams and they were powered by the “Million Dollar Secondary” which was one of the best in NFL history. Safeties Derron Cherry and Lloyd Burruss coupled with the great cornerback tandem of Kevin “Rock” Ross and Albert Lewis manned the last line of defense.

You have to remember these were dark times for a once proud franchise. Not since the Christmas Day 1971 game of Ed Podolak in the longest game ever played vs the Dolphins, had the Chiefs participated in postseason play. Nothing was really expected of the ’86 version as well. There was an impasse at quarterback where the team went back and forth between quarterback’s Bill Kenney and Todd Blackledge with moderate success. They ran the football by committee between ex Browns Boyce Green and Mike Pruitt and as the season was concluding was down to KR Jeff Smith running the football. Smith’s real claim to fame was the National Championship upset where the Miami Hurricanes upset Nebraska, 31-30 in the ’84 Orange Bowl. It was Smith (Mike Rozier’s backup) who scored the final touchdown before the fateful two point attempt. Aside from Stephone Paige who once held the NFL record with 309 receiving yards in a game, none of these players were of distinction or Pro Bowl performers.

However there was hope in the #4 rated defense in the NFL that kept games close and special teams coach Frank Gansz utilized the best players on the team. This included Pro Bowlers Cherry, Burruss, and NT Bill Maas. Albert Lewis was a master at blocking punts as well. Cherry was All Pro at safety, having picked off 9 passes, to share that distinction with Ronnie Lott. Strong safety Lloyd Burruss (5int.s) enjoyed his best season in 1986 leading the NFL in both int. return yards 193 and touchdowns with 3. In fact it was Burruss with 2 interception returns for touchdowns against eventual AFC Champion Denver in week 14, that put the Chiefs in position to make the playoffs. It was this 37-10 victory that allowed the Chiefs to control their destiny with an 8-6 record. A win the following week against the Los Angeles Raiders set the Chiefs up for a do or die game in Pittsburgh to make the playoffs.

As was Four time Pro Bowl Cornerback Albert Lewis

What took place was one of the oddest games in NFL history in one regard, and one where a team taught everyone what it meant to use their special teams as a weapon. The Chiefs defense actually had one of it’s worse games of the year as they allowed 515 yards to Mark Malone and the Steeler offense. It was actually the Chiefs special teams fault they gave up so many yards. However they kept the Steelers out of the endzone for much of the day.  Of course the Chiefs offense disappointed only gaining 171 yards with the football. So what happened??

They took control in the 1st quarter when they had the Steelers backed up near their own goal line. Where most teams set up for a midfield return, Gansz and the Chiefs attacked. Cornerback Albert Lewis flew in from the wing to block the punt which was recovered by Derron Cherry in the endzone to take a 7-0 lead, silencing Three Rivers Stadium. Funny thing was had Lewis not blocked the punt, Burruss would have as they crisscrossed right in front of the punter. After trading field goals in the 2nd quarter, Boyce Green returned the subsequent kickoff 97 yards to extend the Chief lead to 17-3. A team with less than 100 yards of total offense had nearly a two touchdown lead in a game they needed to make the playoffs. Go figure…yet before the Steelers could get to halftime and make adjustments their offense raced downfield to narrow the score following another field goal.

 

The Steelers were in position for a Gary Anderson field goal to bring Pittsburgh to within a touchdown. The crowd would be back in the game and with the Steelers defense totally stifling the Chiefs offense, the game would turn in the second half right?? Well not quite. Pro Bowl Nose Guard Bill Maas charged through two Steeler linemen and blocked the kick. Lloyd Burruss snatched the loose ball and sailed 78 yards to an insurmountable halftime lead of 24-6. The Steelers made it close but with a chance to win it late in the 4th quarter, LB Tim Cofield forced an errant throw by Malone that was intercepted by Lewis to preserve a 24-19 win.

This great secondary who rarely got their due outside of Kansas City had performed a game for the ages on defense and special teams. They kept scoring and putting themselves on the field yet only allowed 1 Steelers touchdown. If I were to wake you and tell you that you missed a game where a team won the game without scoring an offensive touchdown and were outgained 515-171 on the road, would you believe me?? http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198612210pit.htm Folks it happened.

For 1986, this group led the NFL in interceptions and blocked kicks with 5. Burruss, Cherry, Lewis, and Ross intercepted 18 passes themselves. This team lost the AFC Wild Card to the New York Jets 35-15 to end their season, yet before they went away quietly Albert Lewis scored one of the Chiefs touchdowns with another blocked punt.  After this teams more and more started putting some of their best players on their special teams. It was this special unit in 1986 that showed how lethal your special teams can be utilizing your best talent.

Cris Carter Belongs In The Hall of Fame

Cris Carter graces the cover of The Sporting News

Has there been a better set of hands in the history of Pro Football?? How many ridiculous one handed catches did Cris Carter make during his great career with the Philadelphia Eagles and mainly with the Minnesota Vikings?? At first glance, the numbers stand out with 1,101 receptions for 13,899 yards and 130 touchdowns. Good for 2nd most in NFL history for receptions and receiving touchdowns at the time of his retirement. One of the greatest attributes is that he honed his skill amidst a myriad of pedestrian NFL quarterbacks.

Amazingly he came within inches of washing out after a few seasons in Philadelphia. After leaving THE Ohio State University, he was drafted by Buddy Ryan and the Eagles in 1987. In his three years there he played well but was undisciplined off the field. He was a young player who enjoyed the perks of stardom and indulged off the field in alcohol and partying and was wasting his talent away. He helped the Eagles and a growing Randall Cunningham to a 12-4 record and a 1988 NFC East Championship where he caught 39 receptions for 761 yards and 6 TDs for the season.

However it was the 1989 season where he didn’t show signs of maturity off the field. Despite the fact that he caught 45 passes, his play had regressed to where his effectiveness was relegated to catching passes in the redzone. He caught 11TDs but only gained 605 yards. Head Coach Buddy Ryan had lost faith in his receiver growing as a player and released him and drafted less talented receivers Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams in the 1990 draft. When asked why he released Carter he scoffed “All he does is catch touchdowns.” a line mimicked by Chris Berman and Tom Jackson on ESPN highlight shows for years to come.

The Vikings claimed Carter from the waiver wire for $100!! They nabbed a Hall of Fame wide receiver for half the price of a smartphone. Think about that for a second. With the humbling experience he rededicated himself and gave up his tempestuous ways and became a polished receiver with the Vikings. So polished that he thrived with moderate quarterbacking in Minnesota in the ensuing years. Do you realize that in just 12 years for the Norsemen he caught 1,004 receptions for 12,383 yards and 110 touchdowns?? Do you also realize he did most of this while catching passes from the likes of a moderately successful Sean Salisbury, a decade away from developing Rich Gannon, an eroding (with his fourth team) Jim McMahon, a developing Brad Johnson, and an on the downside late 30’s Warren Moon?? Now why didn’t we place an out of retirement Comeback Player of the Year Randall Cunningham with this group?? Because his three best years came before the famous 1998 Vikings everyone remembers with Cunningham & Randy Moss.

Carter making one of his patented sideline catches against the Rams in the ’99 playoffs.

With the aforementioned quarterbacks in tow, Carter, along with Jerry Rice became the first receivers not named Sterling Sharpe to have 100 receptions in back to back seasons for 1994 & 1995. Carter caught 122 in ’94 then 122 in ’95 as compared to Rice’s 112 and 122 respectively. It was 1994-1996 where Carter did his best work. In 1994 his stat-line was 122 rec. for 1,256 yards and 7 TDs. He followed that up with 122 receptions for 1,371 yards and a career high 17 touchdowns in 1995. Lets compare these numbers with Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and should be Hall of Famer Sterling Sharpe over their best 3 year periods. Where Sharpe’s numbers are 1992-1994, Rice and Carter’s are both from 1994-1996.

  • Cris Carter (1994-1996) 340 receptions, 3,790 yards & 34TDs
  • Jerry Rice (1994-1996) 342 receptions, 4,601 yards & 36TDs
  • Sterling Sharpe (1992-1994) 314 receptions, 3,854yards & 42 TDs

See?? You forgot how great he was. The difference between the three is Carter was not catching passes from a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime. Carter was in the midst of writing his Hall of Fame credentials with 8 straight 1,000 yard seasons and 5 straight with 10 or more touchdowns. Where Sterling Sharpe was a big receiver who muscled smaller defensive backs, Carter got by on guile. He wasn’t a deep threat, he caught everything thrown his way with many one handed circus catches and was a sideline technician. He always got his feet in and could perform in a phone booth.

What’s forgotten is how he stepped in and mentored a young Randy Moss for Coach Denny Green before the 1998 season. That season the Minnesota Vikings became the highest scoring team in league history with 556 points besting the ’83 Redskins with 541. In that year where he acquiesced a ton of catches for the betterment of a 15-1 team that should have won the Super Bowl. Carter still went on to catch 78 receptions for 1,011 yards and 12 TDs. At the same time Randy Moss was in the midst of catching 69 rec. for 1,313 yds and 17TDs. The Vikings made the NFC Championship game twice in 1998 and 2000 yet fell short of winning it all.

Cris Carter finished his career in 2001, as one of the most respected players in the NFL and in 2000 won the NFL’s Man of the Year Award. He has gone on to speak at the Rookie Symposium every year to keep rookies from falling into the pits that can derail a young man’s career. His leadership was one he grew into and now works for ESPN covering the game he played so well for so long. When you think of a Hall of Famer, you think about an ambassador of the game along with one who was among the best to ever play. Isn’t this what Cris Carter is/ was?? One who made the game great while he played and was a mentor to players who play the game today.  If that isn’t the mettle of what a Hall of Famer is, I don’t know what one looks like.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you “From THE Ohio St University” Cris Carter!

NFL Week 14 AFC North: De Ja Vu All Over Again

The Steeler defense that is defying father time and has vaulted back to #1 in all of Pro Football.

As this wacky NFL season has had ups and downs and surprise first place teams, the AFC North is taking on an all too familiar theme. It’s come down to the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers as it has much of the last decade. Yet just as we described in our Pre-Season spectacular, this is the last year these two teams will be head and shoulders above their division brethren.

On Thursday night, NFL network is going to showcase one of the league’s best defensive players in D’Quell Jackson, who in our estimation is the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. Right now he’s tied for second in tackles with 112, with 2.5 sacks, 4 passes defensed an interception and 2 fumble recoveries. Of the top 5 tacklers in the NFL this year he has more than 15 more solo tackles than the others, showcasing he is the initial defender to the ball. Oh we forgot to tell you, he plays for the Cleveland Browns. He is the anchor of the league’s #8 defense. What would he be doing had the Browns been able to field a healthy Peyton Hillis and were able to get adequate quarterbacking from Colt McCoy?? If next year the Browns can get an Andrew Luck, or Kellen Moore, or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III this could be a turnaround team for 2012.

As for now they’re still looking up at the neighborhood bully from Pittsburgh. After losing to the Texans, the Steelers have won 7 of their last 8 including a 25-17 win over AFC East leader New England. Unlike the beginning of the season where they had lost to teams with winning records, they also bested Cincinnati twice to take the division lead. The Ravens are ahead of them on a tie breaker but face it, as we head through the money games of November, the Steelers defense has come to life and the last two games didn’t allow 10 points in either contest. Experts, including our CEO, are waiting for this elder defense to age. Yet as we go to press guess who is back at the top spot with the league’s #1 defense. Yet lets take a look at the standings

AFC NORTH W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
Baltimore 9 3 0 .750 6-0-0 3-3-0 4-0-0 6-2-0 296 192 +104 Won 3
Pittsburgh 9 3 0 .750 5-1-0 4-2-0 2-2-0 7-3-0 268 195 +73 Won 3
Cincinnati 7 5 0 .583 3-2-0 4-3-0 2-3-0 6-4-0 266 250 +16 Lost 1
Cleveland 4 8 0 .333 3-4-0 1-4-0 0-3-0 3-6-0 175 240 -65 Lost 2

The Steelers host Cleveland this Thursday Night in what should be a good defensive struggle. If you expect Pittsburgh to run over the Browns you will be shocked to see Jackson #52 making life miserable for Rashard Mendenhall. Truth be told the Steelers are a passing team. Granted they use the run to set up the pass however more and more they rely on Ben Roethlisberger to make a play on 3rd down to sustain drives. Mendenhall has rushed for 634 yards and 8 TDs and isn’t among the league’s elite in terms of rushing output. Right now they have to ride the wildcard that is Big Ben. He’s on pace to finish with 25TDs and 4,328 yards and only 13 interceptions. His frantic helter skelter comebacks are rarely artistic but they’re more successful than not. Normally there should be an air of worry with the Steelers leading tacklers being Palamalu and Ryan Clark, but that has more to do with they have started every game. Where James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Larry Foote have each missed at least two games due to injury. They are coming back healthy for the playoffs and that is scary for most teams.

The Raven defense recorded a team record 9 sacks against the 49ers on Thanksgiving night.

The Ravens have the tie breaker having swept their nemesis in Pittsburgh, yet have 4 interesting games coming up. All season long this team has played up to and beat top competition, then down to and lost to lowly teams like Jacksonville and Seattle. Joe Flacco has been playing better as of late and has matured from that last second touchdown throw in the Steelers game. Coach Harbaugh hopes that is all behind them with the Colts, Chargers, Bengals, and Browns lining up to play spoiler. The Ravens have maintained a menacing defense, currently ranked 3rd overall, without the services of Ray Lewis. In their last two games without Lewis they have given up only 170 yards to the 49ers, and 233 yards to the Browns respectively. On offense Ray Rice is about to cross the 1,000 yard threshold with 926 yards and 9 TDs, yet it’s Ricky Williams who seems to have fresh legs and is rejuvenated in Baltimore.

The stat that jumps out is Baltimore is 6-1 against teams with winning records. If they run the table in these last four games you’d have to say they are a shoo in for the AFC Championship game. With Ray Lewis healthy for the playoffs what do you think?? Could the Ravens best a Steelers team for a third time if they met in the playoffs?? Interesting questions that we’ll have to wait for an answer.

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The Greatest NFL Game Never Talked About

Webster Slaughter’s hauling in a 52 yd TD in the second quarter.

Welcome to another episode of theater of the past. The most famous games in NFL history have always been playoff games. Football is a game of emotion and it’s the finality of knowing your season could be over that can elevate the play of both teams. Yet some playoff games are talked about and held with esteem while others are rarely written about, rehashed, re-shown, or ever discussed among the greats. To us, there is a heavy bias toward the glamour franchises or darlings that the media aid in anointing their games great while others are passed over. One such game was the 1989 AFC Divisional playoff tilt between the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills. Not only was it great, it was as great as “The Epic in Miami”, or in our CEO’s estimation better.

This was a magnificent football game. You have to realize that particular weekend you had John Elway and the Denver Broncos hosting the cinderella Pittsburgh Steelers in one playoff game. Jim Everett’s underdog Los Angeles Rams in New York facing Lawrence Taylor’s Giants, and the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers of Joe Montana hosting the Minnesota Vikings for a third straight post season. Yet it was the Browns v. the Bills that caught the imagination of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was in attendance, and Donald Trump who was in the box with Browns owner Art Modell. Why??

Well the Browns, famous for their “Dawg Defense”, had been stung 3 years before by John Elway’s Denver Broncos in the ’86 AFC Championship, and the following season with Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship. Although the Cleveland Browns had been the NFL’s Team of the decade in the 1950’s, they had been a down franchise for many years. However each time the Browns thought they had a team capable of winning it all, they lost in heart breaking fashion on 3 occasions. The stellar teams they had from 1985-1989 were aging and many pundits thought this was the last chance for this team to get a Super Bowl win for owner Art Modell.

The other side had an up and coming Buffalo Bills team that rose to prominence as a defensive giant in 1988, after nearly a decade of futility. High draft picks,which included future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Shane Conlan carried this team to the 1988 AFC Championship Game. After losing that game to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bills were looked upon as a team of the future. However the team almost imploded in 1989 from infighting and finger pointing, which earned them the nickname ” the Bickering Bills”. The offense of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas was starting to show signs of life as the defense slumped slightly from the year before.

Better than “The Epic In Miami”?? Yes! This game featured big play after big play and came down to the wire with the Browns prevailing 34-30. To compare it to the great ’81 AFC Divisional playoff: Want to talk excitement?? With touchdowns of 33, 44, 52, 73, and 90 yards out, this game in ’89 had 5 touchdowns from 33 yards or more compared to 2 in that one. The only other playoff game in the Super Bowl era to equal 5 TDs of that distance was Super Bowl XXXVII between the Bucs and the Raiders. This game had 4 lead changes as compared to 3 in the earlier game. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199001060cle.htm Each had the record holder for receptions in a playoff game with 13 in both Thurman Thomas and Kellen Winslow. (both Hall of Famers) Each had a Hall of Fame Coach, Marv Levy of Buffalo and Don Shula as well as quarterbacks in Jim Kelly and Dan Fouts. Where the earlier game went to double overtime and ended on a boring field goal, this one had a sense of de ja vu. The Bills made a last second march toward their goal line with time running out, just like John Elway and “The Drive.” Although this time Clay Matthews intercepted Jim Kelly at the 1 yard line with :03 left. Now that is a finish!!

The game was also one of the best ever broadcast with Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olson making the call. Here are the sights and sounds of the biggest plays from that game…

One outstanding aspect of this game was how great the commentary was. Notice how Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen allowed the viewer to take in the sights and sounds of 80,000 fans going crazy. This is the antithesis to Joe Buck, who our CEO thinks is the worst play by play man ever. One aspect of announcing a football game versus a baseball game: Allow the visuals to stimulate the viewer more so than the commentary and know when to acquiesce to such.

Epilogue: Why is this game not revered like “The Epic In Miami”? This game had more Hall of Famers and neither game produced a Super Bowl winner either. We feel that it might have something to do with the media’s growing disdain for the University of Miami football team, from which both Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar hailed. Then NFL Films, who rarely slights a team due to media prejudice, chose NOT to put this game in the Cleveland Browns 1989 Yearbook. Seriously?? That was embarrassing. Yet alas it came down to one play and Clay Matthews made it. So when you saw the 4th quarter fumble caused by his son Clay Matthews III in last year’s Super Bowl, and Casey Matthews forcing a 4th quarter fumble in last year’s National Championship Game for Oregon, you now know it’s in the genes.

The Browns would go on to lose their 3rd AFC Championship Game in 4 years to the Denver Broncos that brought an end to their playoff run. However the Buffalo Bills went on to a record 4 straight Super Bowls which began the following season. From 1986-1993, one of these teams was in every single AFC Championship game for an 8 year period. It was this game that was the birth of the Buffalo “K-Gun” offense and the crossing point where Cleveland conceded to Buffalo as an AFC elite team. For one game, and four hours of sheer escapism magnificence, they played to the highest level worthy of being one of the greatest NFL playoff games ever played and is due more in it’s remembrance.

I dedicate this article to the late Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olsen for their broadcasting excellence in elevating this game to one of  magnificent lore. Your call on this afternoon in January 1990 was simply the best ever. Gentlemen, thank you for a job well done.

R.I.P. Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen

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