Andy Lee—the best punter in the game—makes punting look cool.
The proverbial fall from grace plagues even the best of the best.
Let’s begin this narrative with San Francisco’s 2011 season.
Special Teams Hierarchical Dominance
Two years ago, the 49ers boasted the No. 2 overall rated special teams according to Football Outsiders.
Ted Ginn was a game-changer in bringing back kicks all year long.
He notched the third-best kickoff return average of 27.6 yards (with at least 20 returns), the third-highest punt return average of 12.3 yards (with at least 30 returns) and ran back two to the house, including a 102-yard kickoff return, all according to Pro Football Focus (membership required).
San Francisco consistently enjoyed fantastic starting field position because of Ginn.
David Akers, for his part, set an all-time NFL record with 44 made field goals. He converted an unreal 7-of-9 from 50-plus yards.
Both he and punter Andy Lee routinely pinned opponents deep. Each ranked in the top two at their respective positions, according to PFF.
The opposition’s average starting field position on kickoffs was the 20.4-yard line, fourth-worst in the league with 60 or more punts, according to PFF. Lee did his part by producing the best net average of 44.5 yards per punt.
The coverage unit was an integral aspect on punts and kickoffs as well. Blake Costanzo, Colin Jones and Delanie Walker were all tackling studs on a league-leading group.
Special teams simply helped produce wins for the Red and Gold in 2011.
Here Comes the Fall
Fast forward just one year later, and take a gander at how quickly things can go south.
The 49ers plummeted 18 spots from No. 2 all the way down to No. 20 in 2012, per the sages at Football Outsiders.
Losing coverage standouts Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones was particularly devastating. Opponents enjoyed the second-best starting field position on kickoffs (23.5-yard line) per Pro Football Focus (membership required).
Such short distances in which to score placed considerable pressure on the defense.
Compounding matters even more was the freefall of David Akers. The first-team All-Pro from a year ago missed a ghastly 13 field goals and registered the second-worst conversion rate of 69 percent.
The 49ers resigned themselves to a tie in one matchup and suffered a loss in another because of Akers’ inability to kick straight.
Moreover, Ginn wasn’t anywhere near his usual dynamic self. His kickoff return average decreased by over four yards, his punt return average by two yards and his longest return via either kickoff or punt went for just 38 yards.
The offense had much further distances to traverse without the aid of an effective return game.
Only Andy Lee’s consistency and LaMichael James’ performance late in the season salvaged any respectability for San Francisco’s corps of special-teamers.
So, coming off a Super Bowl appearance, will the 49ers’ special teams unit in 2013 either help or hurt their chances at returning to football’s Promised Land?
Return to the Top
Update: The 49ers signed yet another special teams ace in wide receiver Kassim Osgood to a one-year deal, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Osgood is a three-time Pro Bowler.
Say adios to field-goal liability, and welcome back reliable dominance.
General manager Trent Baalke addressed perhaps the 49ers’ greatest weakness in the offseason by signing kicker Phil Dawson, reuniting him with Brad Seely—his former special teams coach in Cleveland.
The 14-year veteran recorded by far the best season of his career in 2012. Dawson earned his first Pro Bowl by leading the league with a 93.5 percent field-goal conversion rate. He was perfect from distance, nailing all 13 kicks from 40 or more yards.
More incredible was his 7-of-7 mark from 50-plus. Dawson displayed remarkable accuracy in the cold, windy conditions in Cleveland. He also pushed opponents to the third-worst starting field position (19.3-yard line) with his monster leg.
Who will be the MVP of the 49ers' special teams?
This bodes extremely well for the harsh weather anomaly that is Candlestick Park.
The 49ers just aren’t losing any games this year because of suspect kicking. The same goes for the always consistent and premier punter in the game, Andy Lee.
Another glaring deficiency for San Francisco was its coverage unit.
Baalke astutely targeted this need with a bevy of offseason additions. He brought in safety Craig Dahl, linebacker Dan Skuta, cornerback Darryl Morris and most recently, safety Raymond Ventrone as free agents.
Dahl performed at a high level for the Rams last year on special teams. He did not miss a tackle all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Morris brings exceptional 4.35 speed out of Texas State. The first-year cornerback will push C.J. Spillman, Tramaine Brock and others for the primary gunner responsibility.
Ventrone also brings quality special teams experience. He most recently played for the Browns and was a standout on kickoff coverages.
Most significant, however, was the pickup of Skuta. This veritable ace made 15 tackles for the Cincinnati Bengals last season and earned a positive-3.5 from PFF for his work, leading Cincinnati’s special teams.
He will fill the leadership void left by Blake Costanzo in 2012.
Draft picks Nick Moody and Marcus Cooper offer some unique abilities as well. Moody is an athletic linebacker-safety hybrid, while Cooper is a 6’2’’ corner with great 4.46 speed.
Finally, the Red and Gold should once again operate as a viable force in the return game.
LaMichael James will piggyback off his collection of sensational performances from the end of the regular season and playoffs.
He averaged 29.8 yards on kickoff returns during the last four weeks, including a crucial 62-yarder that set up the game-winning touchdown against the New England Patriots. He continued in reliable fashion in the postseason and didn’t cough up a fumble.
James will only improve this facet of his game with a full offseason of development. The 49ers can count on him to solidify their offensive attack via short field position.
Fellow running back Kendall Hunter owns a career average of 24.7 yards and will serve as a solid backup to James.
Punt returns are the only area in question among San Francisco’s special teams group.
Kyle Williams returns from a torn ACL and is line for the No. 1 job. The unfortunate NFC Championship game notwithstanding, Williams possesses the requisite short area quickness, vision and maneuverability to thrive in this role.
The unknown aspect lies in who can push Williams for the starting position and provide depth behind him.
James and rookie wideout Quinton Patton returned a handful of punts during their collegiate careers. The former had more success but did not produce a good showing in last year’s NFL preseason action.
Dynamic players like A.J. Jenkins, Jewel Hampton and even B.J. Daniels may receive an opportunity as well. These young talents would face quite the long road ahead, though.
The most qualified man for the job, however, is backup corner Perrish Cox.
Cox was a stud returner during his time at Oklahoma State. He brought four kickoffs to the house, while also tallying an 11.6-yard average and two scores on punts.
That production last occurred back in 2009, but Cox also had experience with the Denver Broncos in more recent years.
In all, if kicking, punting, coverage and kick returns comprise the four facets of special teams, the 49ers score a 3.5 out of 4.
And that 88 percent should turn into an A-plus in no time at all.
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