On Tuesday, Chris Tabor was announced as the Cleveland Browns’ new special teams coordinator.
I had never heard of Tabor prior to today’s announcement, and I would imagine that most Browns fans hadn’t heard of him either. This lack of name recognition is probably due to the fact that special teams are a frequently overlooked part of football. However, any fan who discounts the importance of special teams just needs to ask the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants—two teams that lost games this past season due to monumental failures by their special teams units—about the effect that poor special teams can have on a game.
Knowledgeable Browns fans surely know that having stellar special teams units can play a huge role in the determining outcome of a game. During the past two seasons, the now-departed Brad Seely did a fantastic job with the Browns’ special teams during his tenure in Cleveland. Seely's skill on special teams helped the team eke out a 6-3 win against Buffalo in 2009 in which the Browns downed several punts within the Bills' 5 yard line.
The Browns’ special teams units did a great job of limiting opposing teams’ return yardage and opening up running lanes for Josh Cribbs, who returned four kicks for touchdowns during the 2009 season. Two of those returns helped the Browns defeat the Chiefs in 2009 during the Browns' season-ending four game winning streak.
Needless to say, Tabor has big shoes to fill.
Is he up to the task?
Fortunately for Browns fans, Tabor has experience with star returners. Prior to his arrival in Cleveland, Tabor served as assistant special teams coach for the Chicago Bears for three years. While in Chicago, Tabor helped Devin Hester—the NFL’s all-time leader in kick return touchdowns—continue to perform at a Pro Bowl level. Chicago’s other returners were also relatively successful during Tabor’s tenure.
Additionally, during his time in Chicago, the Bears’ special teams units finished towards the top of the league in several categories, including return yardage and opposing return yardage. Tabor’s special teams units also placed a significant number of punts inside the 20 yard line.
Recent reports about Tabor have been quite positive. Dave Toub (the special teams coordinator of the Chicago Bears) made several laudatory comments about Tabor in a recent Chicago Tribune article and made it clear that Tabor would be a great special teams coordinator. Tabor was also one of the finalists for the Carolina Panthers’ special teams coordinator position.
Browns fans will surely be interested in how Tabor will handle a possible transition to a new kicker. With Phil Dawson’s return very uncertain, the Browns may need to find a new kicker in the draft or free agency. This position is especially important given that the Browns’ offense is still somewhat of a work in progress and the team will most likely depend on field goals for many of their points in 2011.
Fortunately, Tabor was able to help the Bears’ special teams units have decent success with Robbie Gould. Fans should also note that Chicago’s wintry weather conditions are often similar to wintry weather conditions found in Cleveland, and I believe that Tabor’s experience in helping special teams units navigate through bad weather conditions will serve him well here in Cleveland.
Tabor will also be forced to help the Browns navigate through some roster turnover on the special teams units. With the Browns most likely transitioning to a 4-3 defense, the team will carry fewer linebackers than in years past. This is notable because many of the Browns' outstanding performers on special teams, such as Blake Costanzo and Jason Trusnik, are linebackers who may not be retained because the team will need to carry more defensive linemen.
The only downside to Tabor is that his special teams experience on the professional level is limited to serving as an assistant coach. However, I really don’t think that this will be a huge problem. Many of the core players on the Browns’ special teams units, such as Reggie Hodges, have a great deal of experience. Given that the Browns’ special teams units are already the strength of the team, I believe that it is more important for the Browns to find experienced coordinators on offense and defense.
Of course, Tabor’s hiring can’t truly be deemed a success or failure until we see if he is able to continue the standard of excellence established by Brad Seely. However, based on what I’ve read, Tabor’s track record has been quite successful and he appears to be a young and energetic coach with a great deal of potential. My general sense is that Tabor will help the Browns maintain their recent success on special teams, and make a few tweaks that will help Josh Cribbs return to his previous form as a kick returner in 2011.