The Bucs special teams unit was a strong point once again in 2008
Clifton Smith's meteoric rise from undrafted rookie free agent to midseason roster call-up to Pro Bowl return man highlighted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' efforts on special teams in 2008, but the team's overall performance in that underappreciated third of the game was remarkably solid.
Rick Gosselin, an NFL columnist for the Dallas Morning News, posts an annual ranking of the league's best special teams units, a very thorough analysis that is well-known around the league. The 2008 season marked the Bucs' second straight year in the top 10 of Gosselin's list.
Gosselin ranks the teams using 22 different kicking-game categories and assigns points based on where each team finishes — one point for a first-place finish all the way up to 32 points for ranking dead last in a statistic.
After adding up all the points, Gosselin crowns the team with the least points as the league's most proficient special teams unit and ranks the rest of the clubs accordingly.
Gosselin's rankings are by no means a system that NFL teams rely on to evaluate their special teams units, but the well-received annual column is an intriguing tool that can be used by outsiders to analyze each team, especially in comparing one year to the next.
With that being said, the Bucs — who have always placed a high priority on the special teams phase of the game — are surely pleased with their output in 2008, and Gosselin's rankings are a reflection of that.
After an uncharacteristic drop to 21st in the league in Gosselin's 2006 analysis, the Bucs have rebounded to post consecutive top-10 finishes. The team placed seventh in Gosselin's 2007 rankings and now ninth in the 2008 tally.
In the 2008 rankings, the Buffalo Bills took the top spot, the third time in the last five years the Bills have laid claim to the league's best special teams unit.
The Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders rounded out the top five, while the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Chicago Bears made up the sixth through eighth spots ahead of the Bucs at No. 9.
Interestingly, according to Gosselin's tally, the Arizona Cardinals (28th) were the lowest-ranked Super Bowl contender ever and the Pittsburgh Steelers (20th) had the second-worst special teams unit on a championship club. Gosselin's full column can be read by clicking here.
As for the Bucs, the club was the highest-ranked NFC South team for the second straight season and finished as the fourth-best NFC squad overall.
The Tampa Bay special teams unit recorded 318.5 points in Gosselin's rankings in 2008, a tally consistent with its 318 points in 2007. That total equates to an average rank of 14.47 in each of the 22 categories, meaning the Bucs, on average, finished in the top half of the league in each statistic Gosselin uses to formulate his list.
Here's a closer look at some of the more interesting aspects of Gosselin's rankings with regards to how the Bucs fared:
In the kicking game, kicker Matt Bryant posted yet another solid season. After a 2007 campaign that saw Bryant set career highs in field goals made (28), field goals attempted (33) and field goal percentage (84.8), Bryant once again set new bests in 2008 in field goals made (32) and attempts (38), while posting a very similar percentage (84.2).
Bryant's 32 field goals made were a bright spot in Gosselin's rankings, as that total placed the Bucs fourth in the league in the category. Meanwhile, his 84.2 percentage placed the club a respectable 18th.
The Bucs also got another consistent season from punter Josh Bidwell.
A season after placing in the top half of the league in both gross and net punting, Bidwell repeated the feat in 2008. Bidwell's 44.5 gross punting average placed him 11th in the league, and his 37.6 net average was 14th-best.
Bidwell also earned the Bucs high marks in Gosselin's rankings by placing 27 of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, a total that tied him for seventh-best in the NFL.
In the return game, Smith's impact was evident — even though he was active for just nine games. The Fresno State product burst onto the scene and became the first player in franchise history to record both a kickoff return and punt return for a touchdown. Those scores helped the Bucs in Gosselin's rankings, since points scored on special teams is one of the 22 categories.
Smith also finished the season with the league's fifth-best individual kickoff return average (27.6) and second-best punt return average (14.1). Those marks helped give the Bucs' special teams unit the NFL's sixth-best overall mark in kickoff returns (24.8) and 16th-best in punt returns (9.4).
Each of those two ranks marked big improvements from 2007. The Bucs jumped six spots in kickoff return average and 12 spots in punt returns. Assuming Smith spends the entire 2009 season as the Bucs full-time return man, it will be interesting to see how much the Bucs' return game can continue to improve.
As far as covering kicks, the Bucs were once again strong on kickoffs. After finishing second in opponent's average kickoff return yardage in 2007, the Bucs placed fifth in 2008, allowing their foes an average of just 20.8 yards per kickoff return.
Furthermore, although special teams tackles are not one of Gosselin's preferred categories, the Bucs sported six players who finished with double-digit special teams stops.
The unit likely would have matched the total of eight Bucs who reached double figures in 2007 if not for the fact that it missed solid contributors in safety Sabby Piscitelli and linebacker Geno Hayes for parts of the 2008 season.
Piscitelli ended up with nine special teams tackles, but spent a portion of the season in the starting lineup due to injuries to usual starter Jermaine Phillips and therefore was relieved of some of his special teams duties. Hayes, meanwhile, was leading the team with seven special teams stops before a knee injury robbed him of the remainder of the 2008 campaign after just nine games.
Hayes still helped the Bucs in Gosselin's ratings in spite of a rookie season cut short by injury. His Week Six blocked punt and subsequent 22-yard scoop and scamper for a touchdown earned the Bucs marks in both the "blocks" and "points scored on special teams" categories.
As strong as the Bucs were on kickoff coverage, however, punt coverage was one of the areas in which the Bucs experienced a decline from 2007 to 2008. After finishing seventh in opponent's average punt return yardage in 2007, the Bucs dipped to 20th in 2008.
That was one of the few problem areas that likely prevented the Bucs from climbing into the top five of Gosselin's rankings.
The Bucs were also hurt by the "extra point percentage" category. A fourth-quarter block of a Matt Bryant extra point attempt in the Week 14 game in Carolina left the Bucs with a 97 percent rate on extra points, a mark that placed them 30th in the league. Missed extra points aren't just rare in Tampa; they're uncommon across the league in the modern era.
Granted, one missed extra point isn't a tremendous cause for concern, but when 26 teams finish the season with a perfect 100 percent mark, the Bucs get dinged accordingly in Gosselin's list.
In addition, opponent's field goal percentage was another area in which the Bucs suffered in Gosselin's rankings. Opponents made 93.3 percent of their field goal tries against the Bucs in 2008, a mark that placed the Bucs 29th in the league.
Obviously, there is only so much the Bucs can do to affect that statistic. Considering that blocked field goals are a rare feat — only 22 field goals were blocked in the NFL over the course of the entire 2008 season — such a ranking really speaks more about the kickers the Bucs faced than their own field goal blocking unit.
Overall, while there were a few minor problem areas the team will surely work hard to correct, Gosselin's rankings show that the Bucs posted yet another solid season in terms of special teams performances.