Jimmy Johnson always had great special teams during his NFL coaching career. It was no accident.
In Johnson's first year with the Miami Dolphins, 1996, he was showing video to the entire team after an early preseason game. An undersized, undrafted rookie linebacker named Larry Izzo kept blowing up people on kick coverage. Johnson stopped the video, and in front of the entire team told Izzo:
"Tonight I want you to call your parents, because there are two guys who have made this team already. One of them is Dan Marino. And one of them is you."
That's what you call sending a message.
A strong commitment from the head coach is the most important key to good special teams in the NFL, and it's a big reason for optimism about the Buffalo Bills' special units in 2001.
New head coach Gregg Williams was a special teams coach -- and a good one -- for one season in Houston. Everything he has said so far indicates he has Johnson's kind of commitment, which is what's needed in the wake of the Negative Grand Slam of 2000. (The Bills were last in all four main special teams categories.)
"I'm here to tell you that problem is fixed," Williams said this past week. "Take it to the bank. We are making a huge emphasis on how we coach and teach and the time we take on special teams for the Buffalo Bills."
Williams has named two special teams coaches -- "coordinator" Danny Smith, and "assistant" Tommy Kaiser. Great. That brings the franchise's average back up to one special teams coach a year . . . because it didn't have one last year.
Here are four ways a head coach can show a commitment to special teams:
1. Make roster decisions based on special teams, as Johnson did with Izzo and others.
2. Devote quality practice and meeting time to special teams, and get many coaches involved. For some teams, the last 15 minutes of practice is the time for the other assistants to go to the sidelines and drink Gatorade. Good teams work a combined 40 to 45 minutes a day (counting before and after the regular practice) on special teams.
The Bills' preparation was so woeful under Ronnie Jones last year that punter Chris Mohr had to organize and run his own meetings after practice to go over things like punt protection.
3. Use veteran personnel wherever necessary on the units.
4. Emphasize it in team meetings, which gives the special teams coach more clout.
Every Saturday night at a full team meeting, the head coach goes over a few main themes for the game, says a word or two about special teams, then turns the meeting over to the special teams coach, who generally talks for about 15 minutes. Then the squad breaks up into offensive and defensive meetings.
Marv Levy used to talk special teams for 10 to 15 minutes on Saturday night, before the special teams coach's talk.
He often would say, "If you really want to impress me, the way to do it is play well on special teams. And if you really want to unimpress me, don't play well on special teams."
Wade Phillips is an excellent X's and O's coach. Special teams was not his strength. There were times he didn't even stick around for the special teams coach's talk.
Under Williams' system, all the assistant coaches except for three (the offensive and defensive coordinators and the QB coach) will be on the field helping Smith. Kaiser will be in charge of the special teams scout unit.
"He'll be in charge of the opponent," Williams said. "He'll have the teams on practice days giving us the best picture of what the New York Jets or Miami Dolphins look like."
Assistant defensive backs coach Steve Jackson will coach the "gunners," the outside guys on punt returns and coverage. Steve Tasker, of course, made that job famous. Jackson did it well in Tennessee.
Smith has coached six years in the NFL and 15 in college. Williams got a glowing recommendation on him from the highly respected Bobby Ross, the former Lions coach who hired Smith twice, at Georgia Tech and Detroit.
Smith was special teams coach for two years in Philadelphia. The Eagles' special teams units were not very good. They ranked 30th and 29th in kick coverage his first year, then improved to 12th and 22nd his second. Williams says Smith is a first-rate teacher, communicator and motivator and that he checked out his Eagles record thoroughly.
"I don't know that there was as much of an emphasis placed on it (in Philly), and I don't think he got near as much support as he's going to get here," Williams said. "I looked into that real hard. Our special teams coordinator with the Titans at that time had been going against him (Smith). He knew quite a bit about Danny at that time. He pointed out that he got a lot out of what he had, but didn't have really good guys."
The Bills have good talent among their younger players. With Williams setting the tone, they should get much better.
Miami 1st, Buffalo 31st
Miami finished 2000 with the best special teams in the NFL and -- surprise, surprise -- Buffalo had the worst in the annual ranking done by the Dallas Morning News. The league's 31 teams are ranked in 19 categories and assigned points according to their standing -- one for the best, 31 for the worst. The Dolphins won with a score of 167.5, 35.5 points fewer than runner-up Carolina. Tennessee was third.
Buffalo's score of 469.5 was the highest since the paper started the ranking in the late '80s. The Bills were last in kick returns, punt returns, opponent starting point after kickoffs, net punting, opponents' net punting and kick protection.
Ironically, Dave Wannstedt fired his outstanding special teams coach, Mike Westhoff, so he could bring in a friend, Keith Armstrong, who also has a good reputation. Bad news for the Bills: Westhoff was hired by the Jets.
New colors for Bills?
Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. did an on-line chat Thursday on buffalobills.com and revealed the team will consider redesigning their uniforms -- which is always a viable marketing tool -- for 2002.
"We are looking into changing the colors of the uniforms," Wilson chatted. "It takes a little over a year to do that. We are presently going to apply for a change in colors that has to be done by this fall of 2001 in order to change the colors for the 2002 season. Nothing can be changed until the 2002 season. Nothing has been decided as far as what the colors will be as of yet."
More quotes from Ravens defensive guru Marvin Lewis on why he didn't get the Bills job, from a recent radio interview he did in Baltimore:
"My whole thing was that I was not going to be comfortable being the coach at Buffalo. My enthusiasm wasn't what it should have been because there were so many unknowns."
Also: "Just because I am black does not mean I have to take the job. This is what people are going to have to get over and understand."
Green Bay takes a flier
It's worth repeating: The Bills were lucky Tom Donahoe was available when they fired John Butler, and they were wise to close the deal and hire him.
If the Bills hadn't hired Donahoe, this franchise was in trouble, because it's anyone's guess who would have gotten the job. Take the situation in Green Bay, where their great GM, Ron Wolf, retired because of burnout at age 62. The Pack handed full control of the team to head coach Mike Sherman, a nice, smart guy. But Sherman only has been in the NFL four years and only has been a head coach one year at any level. Ten NFL teams now have a structure in which the coach also serves as his own general manager and answers only to the owner.
Thomas' sad story
A word of advice to those who get rich quick: The one thing you do not want to acquire is an entourage.
That's the lesson from the estate of late Chiefs superstar Derrick Thomas, who earned $34 million during an 11-year career yet leaves an estate likely to total less than $1 million.
Thomas was generous to a huge fault. One Christmas Eve, Thomas took some of his entourage into a K.C.-area jewelry store. His pals picked out gold chains and Thomas picked out something, too. Thomas paid for it all. He also bought $3,000 suits in bulk, drank $1,000 bottles of cognac, picked up $1,000 tabs at strip clubs, and gave away a $12,000 diamond ring to Hank Williams Jr.
Said Ron Bronstein, one of Thomas' estate attorneys: "It was just amazing -- wine, women and song, like there was no tomorrow."
Said agent Leigh Steinberg: "Derrick probably had a larger group surrounding him than a lot of athletes, and it was made up of people whose primary activity in life was being around Derrick Thomas."
The artificial turf in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, which is annually voted the worst playing surface in the league by the players, has been torn up. It will be replaced in the next few weeks by a bouncier synthetic surface called NexTurf. . . . Eagles pass-rush specialist Mike Mamula, the Lackawanna native, had 8 1/2 sacks two years ago and 5 1/2 last season. He's set to count $3.05 million against the cap this year and will have to wait to see if the Eagles keep him at that rate. . . . People are calling the Redskins "the firm of Schottenheimer, Schottenheimer and Schottenheimer." Head coach Marty hired son Brian and brother Kurt as assistants. . . . Andre Reed will be joining Thurman Thomas in retirement this offseason. By the way, Thomas still will count $500,000 against Miami's cap this year. J.J. Johnson and Autry Denson shared the third-down back role when Thurman got hurt, but neither could do it as well as Thurman. Miami may look to add a veteran to help fill the role.