Al Everest is a realist. He understands.
Everest is the Steelers new special teams coordinator, hired some months back because the units were sub-standard through too much of the 2009 season. In four different games, an opponent had returned a kickoff for a touchdown during a 9-7 season, and two of the losses could be traced mathematically to the points coming from those lapses by the special teams. Yes, Stefan Logan set a franchise record for kickoff return yards in a season and Jeff Reed converted 87.1 percent of his field goal attempts, but that's not the way it works in the NFL.
"I tell them this," said Everest, "that if we were to go and try to rescue 20 hostages, and we saved 18 lives and got two killed, they're not going to write about the 18 we saved. They're going to write about the two we got killed. That's the nature of our job: don't be the problem. On the other side of that is to be a part of the solution. Turn bad into good, turn good into better, all to help the team sustain momentum to help us win football games."
If there is such a thing as a job description for an NFL special teams coach, it would be along the lines of that last sentence. Ever since George Allen created the idea of special teams in 1969 by hiring Dick Vermeil as the first full-time assistant to coach it, special teams has been a phase of the game that's trivialized until it becomes a problem. Sometimes referred to as one-third of the game, special teams has been given short shrift by some head coaches and over-emphasized by others, but in an NFL where games can be decided by a couple of plays and playoff prospects often come down to tiebreakers, it is a phase that cannot be ignored.
Al Everest has been coaching football as many years as Mike Tomlin has been alive, and the two men now will embark on a professional relationship that's different from any of the others Tomlin will have with other assistants on his staff.
Special teams doesn't get as much on-field practice time or meeting time as offense and defense, and when it comes to the chore of cutting the roster to 53, Everest understands his voice isn't as loud as the others'. Still, he has a job to do, and nobody cares whether it's completely fair in his world.
"As a coach, you have to make a decision on your time," said Everest about his approach. "You can be a scheme person, multiple schemes, and those things take time. Time to teach, time to install. The other side of it is fewer schemes and more of how can I make you a better football player. To me, fundamentals and techniques are the tools of the game. If you've seen 'The Karate Kid,' it's not much of a movie until he learns wax-on, wax-off, because he was getting his butt handed to him before that.
"All I ever want to hear from a player is, 'Thanks for making me a better player.' That's why we drill, do technique work. I want them to understand the leverages of the game and to apply the leverages of the game. All of the athletes are good, and the one who plays with the best tools is going to win most of those battles. So we're going to spend more of our time helping our players become better players. In exchange, we're giving up some of the multiple conceptual ideas, or schemes. It's the same thing with our meeting time."
And in those meetings, Everest will use the time explaining how he wants the players to view the various situations that arise in every game, and what they're going to have to be able to do if they plan on making it into the 2010 regular season.
"Kickoff and kickoff return are statement plays," explained Everest, "because they either start the game or start the second half, which means: did you come to play, and did you come to win? One of those units will start the game, and the other will start the second half, which creates the initial momentum of how you're going to start each half.
"Punt situation is a bad situation for us because the offense has failed, and so our job is to go into a bad situation and turn it into good. Kickoff can be about a good situation, in that we scored, and can we turn it into better? That's how you're creating and sustaining momentums that you need in the process of trying to win games.
"Punt return is a good situation – so don't screw it up. The defense has succeeded, but since the opponent still has the ball we've got to play the situation, which means we play defense first and then try to turn it into a return if they give the ball up to us. Ball security is a big part of it, as it is in the whole game of football, so our goals in punt return and kickoff return are: first – to give the ball to the offense; two – make positive yards, which means we're catching the ball, handling the ball, securing the ball and then not committing stupid penalties like blocking in the back because that negates positive yards; three – getting into scoring position; and four – to score.
"So when a lot of teams say, we're going to score, to me that's the fourth goal for those two units. Get us the ball, get positive yardage, get into position to score, and then score."
Which leads to the other significant aspect of a special teams coach's reality: personnel. By Everest's estimation, there are 16 starting units on every NFL team: the five basic packages on offense and the corresponding packages the defense will use to combat those is 10, with the others being kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return, field goal/extra point and field goal/extra point block.
"The key if you're going to make it in the National Football League, and the first thing I have to convey to these young guys, is that you better be starting on four or five units and backing up on four or five other units, or you won't be here," said Everest. "They can start on four special teams units, but they also have to be backing up four other units – either on offense or defense."
Another of the vagaries of special teams forces Everest to take offensive players and make them proficient in the art of defense, as has to be the case when receivers are to run down under a kick and make a tackle in space, and take defensive players and make them proficient in the nuances of offense, as must happen for a linebacker to get his hands and feet into the proper position to make the block that seals the edge without getting flagged for holding.
And Everest loves every minute of it.
"That's what I like about my job," said Everest. "I've coached every position. I've coordinated the offense, coordinated the defense. I've been a head coach. In this job, I get to coach all of the players, so I get to know them, get to know their strengths and weaknesses and get the privilege of coaching all of them. I get to speak to all of them, not just the defensive backs or the linebackers. I get to coach offense, and I get to coach defense. I get to be part of all of it. To me, it's the best of all worlds of football."