From 2006 to 2013 one could argue the three most stable roster positions on the Chicago Bears were kick returner, kicker and long snapper as each were manned by players ranking as the franchise’s best ever at the spot. Special teams, especially in the Dave Toub era, were the frothy foam head at the top of a perfect pint of Guinness.
Since Jerry Angelo decided to make Adam Podlesh one of the best paid punters in the history of the sport, that position has been infamously (at least around here) unstable. Podlesh capped off his Bears career with a dreadful 2013 performance, ranking dead last in almost every important statistical category. Their worst-ever defense was hamstrung by more than injuries and poor play. They were hamstrung with short fields to defend due to Podlesh. They had no shot.
Phil Emery sent Podlesh packing and drafted Miami’s Pat O’Donnell in the sixth round. O’Donnell, as a rookie, is the Bears most important special teams player in 2014.
Robbie Gould will be consistent and accurate. About the only criticism you’ll hear heaved in his direction is “he’s not perfect”.
Very little by way of impact should be expected from either the kick or punt return games as Micheal Spurlock, Santonio Holmes, Senorise Perry and every other player on the roster take their shot at replacing a legend. If the return games can avoid being a negative, avoid turnovers, the Bears offense will not be thwarted by the lack of a field position advantage.
Coverage units will be under pressure but its near impossible to identify any individual as more important than the whole of those units. (I also contest its impossible to evaluate coverage units until the regular season as the bottom third of the roster, usually in flux, is what comprises those units.)
Expectations on O’Donnell will be high. And they should be.
When asked by various folks about my obsession with the punter position, I always answer the same way: “That’s none of your business.” Then I explain.
Adam Podlesh punted 4.25 times a game in 2013. That means the punter had, without question, four possible impact plays per game. How many opportunities for an impact play does the backup quarterback have in a game? The third defensive tackle? The dime corner? The flex tackle? If they have four opportunities for impact in a game it is a rare thing yet fans and media spend so much time dissecting these players while ignoring the efforts of a guaranteed contributor: the punter. (NFL taking this long to put a punter in the HOF proves this fact incontrovertibly.) I’m not arguing punter is more important than your starting skill guys or center or middle linebacker. But once you get by the immediate starting lineup, there are few players as important.
Nobody cares about the punter until he rescues the offense from their own end zone or pins a high-powered quarterback on the goal line.
Against a good team, you are going to punt a few times regardless of offensive ability. And against a good team those punts could be the difference in a field position battle. And the object of the NFL season is to play at least three games against good teams when all the crappy teams have gone home.
Punts are individual efforts, unlike most other sequences in the NFL. Once the snap reaches the punter it is on the punter. That’s why Emery spent a draft pick on O’Donnell and why he was right to do so. Shane Lechler was a fifth round pick and if the Bears have found another Lechler they will have struck gold.
O’Donnell is the most important special teams player because the defense is still a liability and POD can do three things: (1) change field position by compensating for stalled offensive drives (2) hanging the ball high in the air to allow coverage units to get downfield and (3) accurately kick to the sidelines to hinder opposing returners. The rebuilt defense won’t be great but they can be mediocre. Allow them to defend long fields and they can be even better.
O’Donnell is the defense’s twelfth starter. He’s also the key to the Bears special teams in 2014.