The Chicago Bears could find their special teams vaulting to the top of the NFL this season.
Once upon a time, the Chicago Bears boasted the top special teams unit in the NFL. Brad Maynard routinely pinned teams inside their own 20 and only allowed two scores off punt returns over his 10 years with the team. Robbie Gould possessed a great leg to go along with his ice veins in crunch time. Last but certainly not last, Devin Hester struck fear into teams every time he touched the ball. He forced teams to spend hours of extra practice time just to try and contain him, all to little avail.
Unfortunately, those times came and went for the Bears. However, Chicago has reason to hope for a special teams renaissance as early as this season. To begin, let’s recap how the Bears got here in the first place.
The fall of Chicago’s special teams:
Brad Maynard left after the 2010 season. The Bears found a decent replacement in Adam Podlesh until 2013, but things fell apart following his departure. The Bears have allowed a punt return touchdown in each of the past three seasons.
Robbie Gould suffered an injury in 2014, and couldn’t regain his form in the 2015 season. He botched late game kicks to cost the Bears games against the 49ers and Redskins. Additionally, his leg strength deteriorated which resulted in poor kickoffs and great starting field position for opposing offenses. The Bears cut Gould before the 2016 season and brought in a cheap veteran, Connor Barth. The Bears got what they paid for as Barth offered up a mediocre season.
Devin Hester only saw the field as a punt returner in 2013, and the Bears couldn’t justify extending a 32-year-old just to return kicks and punts. The Bears didn’t truly expect to replace Hester’s production, but his replacements left much to be desired. Names like Marc Mariani, Deonte Thompson, Eddie Royal, and even Santonio Holmes tried and failed as returners for the Bears. Fans usually hope for a touchback on most kicks ever since Hester left town.
These three players alone didn’t signal the downfall of Chicago’s special teams. Dave Toub’s departure as special teams coordinator undoubtably hurt the Bears. Additionally, the roster became far less talented around 2013 which didn’t help matters.
New faces and new hope:
While punter Patrick O’Donnell experienced growing pains in his first two years, he’s constantly improved. In fact, Chicago’s punt team improved significantly from 2015. They went from 26th in average yards per punt in 2015 to 16th in 2016. Additionally, the Bears were a top 10 punt coverage team in the NFL this past season. Pace added more talented speedsters in free agency that could further improve the punt team.
Chicgo signed Connor Barth to a one year deal, but they also picked up an intriguing undrafted kicker, Andy Phillips. The former Utah kicker earned the nickname “Automatic Andy” from his teammates due to his consistency. The Bears didn’t need much in regards to clutch kicking last season, but the last thing Mike Glennon or Mitch Trubisky need is to lose a close game because of a missed field goal. The Chicago Bears got spoiled with consistent kickers like Kevin Butler and Robbie Gould, Andy Phillips could very well be the next name in that line.
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Perhaps the most exciting development with the Bears is at the return spot. Ryan Pace drafted two rookies with serious potential as kick returners. Tarik Cohen earns his nickname as the “human joystick” with absurd cuts and jukes. He earns every comparison to Darren Sproles. Pace also drafted safety Eddie Jackson from Alabama who also has experience as a punt returner. He doesn’t have the same burst as Hester, but what Jackson does have is superb vision. He does a great job of seeing his blocks develop downfield. Between the two rookies, the Bears should find a dynamic spark in the struggling return game this season.
What it means for this season:
Anyone who was fortunate enough to witness the 2006-2007 Bears knows exactly what special teams can do. Unfortunately, no one is going to mistake this roster for the 2006 Bears.
However, the improvements to special teams could work wonders this season. A better punting game means more breathing room for a defense that will likely have to carry the team considering Chicago’s inexperience at quarterback. A solid kicking game can help boost Glennon’s and/or Trubisky’s confidence by securing points on a drive. Lastly, a good return game not only sets up the offense to succeed, but it also creates momentum for the team as a whole.
Chicago may not be competing for the division crown this season, but the improvement to special teams could propel the rebuild forward considerably.