KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s the difference between 7-9 and 10-6, and yet nobody really seems to be talking much about it in these parts. Of all the very smart things the Kansas City Chiefs have done since January 1 — new coach, new general manager, new quarterbacks, new right tackle, new corners — it’s funny how little love has been given to one of the smartest.
Lookin’ at you, Dave Toub.
Special teams matter, kids. Hiring someone such as Toub away from the Chicago Bears to be your special teams coordinator matters. The good folks at FootballOutsiders.com track dozens of NFL metrics, but one of the more interesting tables on the site quantifies the relative value of special teams — specifically, field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns — into sabermetric terms.
The more you break down the numbers, the more a pattern starts to form. In 2012, the top five NFL special teams units according to FootballOutsiders — Baltimore, Cleveland, Seattle, New England and Minnesota — were on teams that had a combined record of 48-32 (.600). The bottom five units — Tampa Bay, Carolina, Detroit, Oakland and Houston — were on teams with a combined record of 34-46 (.425).
And the further you stretch the top five/bottom five comparison out, the stronger the bond between good units and good winning percentages becomes. Over the last two seasons, the NFL teams with top five special teams units had a combined record of 99-61 (.619); the bottom five, a mark of 66-94 (.413). Since 2009, the squads with top five units were 191-129 (.597). Clubs within the bottom five were 149-171 (.466).
Brass tacks: If you’re very, very good at special teams (or very, very lousy), it amounts to a difference of about three victories per year. In the AFC West, that’s the kind of thing that could spell the difference between January games and January pink slips.
So even if it’s not huge — the franchises with the best quarterback and best coach win the race these days, more often than not — it ain’t lip service, either.
In the right hands, it’s a weapon.
In Toub’s hands, it’s a set of swinging nunchucks. His Bears units were among FootballOutsiders’ top five four out of the last five years, where he helped turn Devin Hester into a Windy City legend and transform the likes of Corey Graham, Johnny Knox and Brendan Ayanbadejo into Pro Bowlers.
Meanwhile, over the past four seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs have checked in at No. 22 (’12), No. 19 (’11), No. 24 (’10), and No. 27 (’09). One playoff year, one lackluster one, and two epic dumpster fires. True, that’s more the result of misfires at signal-caller and at coach than special teams, but let’s be frank: Punter Dustin Colquitt notwithstanding, the Chiefs’ units haven’t exactly helped the cause much, either.
Toub’s task here is to renovate and reinvigorate, from the personnel to the schemes. Also, the mindset.
“He’s really passionate about what he does,” said wideout/scatback Dexter McCluster, who’s getting the first crack at the No. 1 punt return job. “He takes his job very seriously. Which he should — it’s part of the game, and you can win ballgames on special teams.
“He’s a guy that, he’s so enthusiastic, that you’ve got to want to play for him. And he wants to get the best 11 guys on special teams to go out there and play like you’re going to score, or you’re going to make a big play every time you’re out there.”
Done right, there’s a confidence there, a state of mind. And, in the mind of the opposition, absolute, utter fear. That’s the fun part, isn’t it?
The last time the Chiefs touted a top five special teams unit — the last time they really put the fear of God into anyone — was 2003, during the salad days of Dante Hall and his high-wire Human Joystick act. That club wound up 13-3, won the division and led the NFL in points scored. Not a coincidence.
Remember that FootballOutsiders list? In the five seasons from 2008-2012, those special teams-savvy Bears under Toub posted a combined record of 45-35 (.563).
That wasn’t a coincidence, either.
“This whole thing is a process, and we’re at the beginning stages of this and really evaluating a lot of the guys,” Toub said earlier this week. “We really have learned a lot about them these last couple of days. We still have a long way to go, and it’s just the beginning.”
And like one of Hall’s returns, it’ll be interesting to see just where it finally ends up.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.