The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the NFL's storied franchises, the team with the most wins and the most championships and the fewest head coaches since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, an organization that can serve as an example of how to do all things football.
Except special teams.
Chuck Noll was the last guy in the league to hire a full-time special teams coach, bad special teams play almost cost the Steelers in Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys, and Noll's 1988 team had six punts blocked. Bill Cowher, who broke into the NFL as a special teams coach, went through five of them during a 15-season career when the Steelers once lost a key game in Cleveland when Eric Metcalf returned two punts for touchdowns and then lost the 2001 AFC Championship Game by 24-17 when they had a punt returned for one touchdown and a blocked field goal returned for another touchdown.
Mike Tomlin is entering his seventh season as the Steelers coach, and he is like Noll and Tomlin in that he also has won a Super Bowl championship, and he seems to have inherited their special teams issues as well. The hiring of Danny Smith on Jan. 31 means Tomlin is now on his fourth special teams coach already.
But there seems to be more optimism about Smith than there was for any of the three guys who preceded him in the job.
This is what Tomlin said he is looking for in a special teams coach: "A guy who can inspire a large group of men. It's one of the few positions within a staff, other than the head coach, where a guy has the potential to address the larger group on a regularly scheduled basis. So you're looking for somebody who is a great communicator not only in terms of small groups but also in extremely large groups. He has to be a guy who sees the game from a 22-man perspective. The schematic end of it, of course, is a very challenging end of the job, because you have the whole field to work with both horizontally and vertically. You have to make the 22 men dance within that space.
"It's a very challenging job. There's more field position exchanged on kicking plays than any other plays in football, so there has to be a sense of urgency that comes with the job. Usually those guys are wired in a certain way to reflect that."
One of the challenging aspects of being an NFL special teams coach is the constant turnover of personnel. There is a lot of personnel turnover on an NFL team from year to year, but especially so at the levels of the depth chart that make up the bulk of the special teams units. There are examples of players who made a career of special teams, but Tomlin doesn't necessarily believe it's a must to have special teams lifers on the units in order for those units to be successful.
"No, what you need is a guy who knows what he's doing and also has a legitimate passion and aptitude for the job," said Tomlin. "Often times those guys don't have much else, but it doesn't preclude them from having another skill-set. More than anything, they have to know what to do. You don't play fast and productive on special teams if you don't understand the nuances of the game. They have to know what to do, and have a legit passion and enthusiasm for it."
Another fact of life with special teams is that most of the players entering the NFL have little experience in this phase of the game because they were the stars in college, and stars rarely are used on special teams. Since Smith has 18 years experience coaching special teams in the NFL, he should understand this aspect of the job.
Said Tomlin about developing special teams players in the NFL: "It's a niche, like anything else. Sometimes it's a known commodity, and sometimes it's discovered over time and I think it's no different than any other athletic endeavor. You can run track for a number of years and bounce around events before you find something that you really latch onto. The same thing can be said about special teams play. Some guys realize that it's a way to feed himself and his family and stay in this game, some guys just realize they enjoy it and are good at it. It's a discovered skill or art. That's why you have to continue to snap the ball and give guys opportunities to show what they're capable of. That's why you have to value position flexibility and acknowledge that guys have positions but they're football players first and foremost and you have to give them an opportunity to display that."
Tomlin also doesn't believe in the notion that special teams is all about want-to. "That's said a lot, but I think that doesn't give legitimate credence to the skill and the understanding required to be good at it. No question that want-to is a big element of it, but if you don't know what you're doing you're going to get beat, just like any other phase of the game. That's played up too much, that concept of special teams being all want-to. I've seen a bunch of units with a lot of guys with want-to getting their tails kicked because they don't know what they're doing."
As for what went wrong in 2012 with the Steelers' special teams units, Tomlin said, "I thought we were too penalized, and the tape reflects that. We had too many positive plays negated due to penalties. That's an easy discovery and acknowledgement. For me moving forward it's how to minimize it. How to play better technically. How to put guys in better position win blocks, or defeat blocks if we're in coverage. Those are the things that need to be discussed as we move forward."