The Oakland Raiders were not a good team in 2013. The offense was bad, the defense was bad and the special teams was terrible. The return game and the coverage teams were extremely poor, and one of the few coaches fired after the season was special teams coordinator Steve Hoffman.
The signing of Josh Cribbs does more to boost the Oakland’s special teams than any other move this offseason. New special teams coordinator Bobby April has to be happy that he has a special teams ace to help turn things around.
To put it all in perspective, Cribbs will help on kickoffs, punts, return kicks and return punts. Cribbs is a rare four-way dynamo on special teams. Even if Cribbs isn’t used on offense, he is exactly what the Raiders needed to ensure they improve in the forgotten third phase of the game.
According to Football Outsiders, the Browns had the second-best special teams in the entire league last year with Cribbs and the Raiders ranked 31st in the league. Although other factors play into the rankings, Cribbs was a big part of what the Browns were able to achieve on special teams.
The Raiders averaged 22.3 yards per kick return, which was well below average. Cribbs averaged 27.4 yards per return last season (25.9 yards per return in his career), and only seven players last year had a higher average. Over the course of a season, Cribbs would have given the Raiders approximately 14 yards per game more than they had last year.
That might not seem like a lot, but an offense’s chance of scoring greatly improves based upon the field position on first down. A difference of 14 yards per game is roughly equal to 0.8 expected points, according to NFL Stats Blog's data from 2011.
Obviously, not every return is going to be average, and there will be some games where the return game will help more than others. One big kickoff return could put the Raiders in range for a field goal and give and make things easier for an inexperienced quarterback.
The Raiders were embarrassingly bad on punt returns last season with a league-low 5.1 yards per return. That’s more than a yard-and-a-half less than the next worst team. The Raiders do face a trio of solid punters in the AFC West, but that’s no excuse for being so bad.
Cribbs averaged 12.0 yards per punt return (11.0 yards per punt return in his career), which is almost a full seven yards more than the Raiders averaged in 2012. The difference of about 15 yards per game means another 0.8 expected points per game.
Just in the return game, having Cribbs is worth around 1.5 points per game or roughly a field goal every other game (24 points per season). This is assuming that Cribbs doesn’t score on a return and that the Raiders produce points at the standard rate on offense.
This also assumes Cribbs continues to produce at a high level and stay healthy, but it’s enough evidence to suggest he’s a great addition to the team strictly for his return abilities. Cribbs also plays on the coverage units and adds more value to the team.
Despite Sebastian Janikowski’s big leg, opponents returned 30 kickoffs for an average of 28.9 yards. The Cleveland Browns with Cribbs averaged just 19.8 yards per return against and were one of only two teams that held opponents to less than 20 yards per return.
Even if the Raiders only make it to league average in kick coverage, they will save another 14 yards per game. These little chunks of yardage add up; anything the Raiders can do to improve their chances of scoring and decrease their opponent’s chances of scoring is going to be a key for a team still short on talent.
Cribbs typically lined up third from the outside on kickoffs, so he isn’t the gunner that runs down the field hoping in kamikaze-like fashion to try to get the return man first. Rather, Cribbs has to sift through the traffic to find the return man and bring him down in traffic.
Along with the other additions this offseason, Cribbs will be an important piece of Oakland’s kick coverage team and hopefully allow it to improve over last season.
Cribbs also plays on the punt coverage team, lining up on the end of the line and protecting against rushers coming around the edge and then streaking down the middle of the field to take down the punter returner.
Punt coverage is a combination of the punter and the punt coverage. A lot of people think Shane Lechler had a down year in 2012, but the stats don’t really support that line of thinking.
Lechler averaged more yards per punt in 2012 (47.2) than he did in 2010 (47.0) and fewer were returned, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2012, 55.6 percent of Lechler's punts were returned compared to 57.9 percent in 2010. Lechler’s 2012 punt average was just 0.3 yards less than his career average.
The truth is that Lechler hasn’t had a great season since 2009, when he led the league in gross and net punting. The Raiders have allowed 11.1 yards per return in Lechler’s career and averaged 10.0 yards per return against last season.
The Raiders have been able to hide bad coverage units because they had a great punter, but the quality of punters is getting better every year, and Lechler is declining. The Raiders signed Chris Kluwe to compete with Marquette King, and he actually had a better net punting average than Lechler last season.
Cleveland’s punter Reggie Hodges had 10 more fair catches than Lechler and eight more were inside the 20, with five fewer touchbacks. Hodges ranked 31st in the league in gross punting and 30th in net punting. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Hodges as the worst punter in the league and the only one with a negative grade last season who played in at least four games.
What does this have to do with Cribbs? The Browns allowed about the same yards per return (10.1) as the Raiders last season but allowed 11 fewer returns and punted nine more times than the Raiders did. Basically, the Browns' coverage units had to be a lot better because their punter wasn’t as good.
At the same time, the better the punter’s leg, the better the coverage unit needs to be. King has a monster leg, but he’s still inconsistent. If the Raiders didn’t improve their punt coverage unit, there was a good chance that opponents would be able to hit big returns against the Raiders or they will have to go with Kluwe as their punter.
The Raiders can’t afford to be bad on special teams in 2013, and Cribbs along with the punter change is going to play a vital role in the field-position battle.
The Impact of Cribbs
If you think of every yard gained and lost as 0.055 points (per NFL Stats Blog), the Raiders might be able to squeeze as many as three points per game out of their special teams unit. For a team that was outscored by opponents by 153 points last season, that could be huge.
Special teams might not be sexy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. The San Diego Chargers had the most yards on offense and allowed the fewest yards on defense in 2010 but went 9-7 and missed the playoffs because of terrible special teams.
Even if Cribbs isn’t used at receiver, he’s more than capable of having a big impact on the Raiders in 2013. The Raiders have made a concentrated effort to improve the special teams units this offseason, and Cribbs is a giant step in the right direction.