Unheralded doesn’t even begin to describe the contribution of special teams players in the NFL.
Without kickers, punters, return specialists and gunners, some games wouldn’t turn on a dime like they do.
Super Bowl XLI pitted the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning against the 13-3 Chicago Bears and unknown QB Rex Grossman. On paper, at least, it looked like a bit of a mismatch offensively. What it was billed as was Manning against the Bears’ vaunted defence.
However, the game would start off with a bang, literally. Chicago’s Devin Hester, who took no reps at wide receiver, was a rookie kick/punt returner who made quite a name for himself that freshman season. He returned three punts for TDs in the regular season, as well as two kicks.
On the opening kick-off at XLI, played in Miami where he went to college, Hester took the ball at his own 10, juke-stepped his way through the first wave of tacklers and then darted 90 yards for an electrifying score.
Unfortunately, an early lead wouldn’t hold up at the Colts came back to win 29-17.
Special teams players rarely get their due, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to name 10 of the best in NFL history.
10. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson – KR/PR
Widener College, a private Division III school in rural Pennsylvania is notable for graduating the likes of famed Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille and NHL Hall of Fame player, coach and GM Pat Quinn. As for football players, just two from the tiny academic school in Chester have ever made a name for themselves. One of them, wide receiver Billy “White Shoes” Johnson graduated from Widener, was drafted in the 15th round of the 1974 draft by Houston and made the team as a kick/punt returner. The man who would create the “Funky Chicken” dance after scoring a touchdown was so good at returning kicks he would eventually make the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time team. In 143 games between 1974 and 1988, Johnson returned 282 punts, six for touchdowns, including an 83-yarder in 1975. He also ran back 123 kicks, two for “Funky Chicken” scores.
9. Morten Andersen – K
No one, and we mean no one, has scored more points in the NFL than 2017 NFL Hall of Fame inductee Morten Andersen. The seven-time Pro Bowler retired in 2007, having amassed a record 2,544 points. He hit on 849 of 859 extra point attempts, as well as 565 of 759 field goals, including a NFL best 87 percent in 1986 (26-for-30). The “Great Dane” (he was born in Copenhagen) happened into kicking on a whim while visiting the U.S. and would get a scholarship to Michigan State after just one season of high school football. Drafted in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, Andersen would spend 13 great seasons with the New Orleans Saints, winning the Golden Toe award in 1986 (and duplicating it with Atlanta in 1995). He was a six-time First-Team All-Pro and owns the NFL record for games played (382), most field goals (565) and most game-winning field goals (103) among many individual accomplishments.
8. Brian Mitchell – KR/PR
As an undersized (5’10”) quarterback at a small school (University of Southwestern Louisiana; now Louisiana-Lafayette), Brian Mitchell would have to do more to forge a career in the NFL. And more he did. As a kick and punt return specialist, he would later retire as one of the best, all-time. Drafted 130th overall by Washington in 1990, he started his career with a splash, scoring on the opening kick-off of the Redskins first pre-season game in 1990. During his 13-year career, Mitchell would finish second only to Jerry Rice in career all-purpose yards (23,330), as well as returning the second most kicks and punts for touchdowns (13). He also set the marks for most kick return yards (14,014) and punt return yards (4,999). Mitchell won a Super Bowl XXVI with Washington, was a three-time First Team All-Pro and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1995.
7. Larry Izzo – Special Teams Captain
Seldom do special teams captains get any kind of due for their hard work and there weren’t, or aren’t, many better than former linebacker Larry Izzo. Undrafted in 1996 out of Rice University, Izzo went viral before Twitter, once being named in a sound byte by Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson as one of only two players guaranteed to make the ’96 squad, the other being Dan Marino. Izzo spent the majority of his time on special teams in Miami, earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2000. It was with the New England Patriots, who signed him in 2001, that he would put in his best work, helping the Pats win three Super Bowls, as well as making two more trips to the Pro Bowl in 2002 and 2004. Now the special teams coordinator with the Houston Texans, Izzo holds the record for most special teams tackles.
6. Josh Cribbs – KR/PR
Josh Cribbs was actually a standout quarterback at Kent State in the early part of the last decade, finishing his collegiate career was the only player in NCAA history to lead his team in rushing and passing in four different seasons. Undrafted, he signed with Cleveland in 2005 and made the roster as a kick returner. It was a heck of a debut, as he averaged 24.5 yards per return that season and his 1,094 return yards is still a franchise record. By 2007, he was leading the league in return yards with 1,809, as well as yards/return (30.7) and all-purpose return yards (2,312). Cribbs would return a NFL high and league record three kick-offs for touchdowns in 2009 (including a monster 103-yard scamper) and would finish his career in 2014 tied with Leon Washington with eight. A three-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time First Team All-Pro, Cribbs also set the mark for most combined kick and punt return TDs with 11. Cribbs crowing achievement was scoring two return TDs over 100 yards against Green Bay in a 41-34 victory on December 20, 2009.
5. Adam Vinatieri – K
Vinatieri’s name is synonymous with football success. The active leader in field goals made (530; third all-time behind Morten Andersen) has kicked two last second game-winning field goals in a Super Bowl. He has four championship rings (three with New England and one with Indianapolis) and Mr. Clutch owns the all-time record for total field goals in the playoffs. Now the oldest active player in the NFL at 44, Vinatieri went undrafted out of South Dakota State and played his first professional season with the Amsterdam Admirals in 1996 before catching on with New England. He would earn his nickname “Automatic Adam” with the Patriots and over his illustrious career has compiled NFL records in post-season field goals (56), most points in the post-season (227), most Super Bowl field goals (7) and total points in a single post-season (49), among many others. Vinatieri will suit up for the Colts for his 22nd season in 2017.
4. Ray Guy – P
The consensus greatest punter of all-time, Ray Guy, is also the only punter ever to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Guy, who attended Southern Mississippi University, started his career of firsts by being the first punter ever selected in the first round, 23rd overall by Oakland in 1973. He would be their punter for his entire 14-year career, three times leading the NFL in yards per punt, including a league high 43.8 in 1975. Guy would be instrumental in helping the Raiders win three Super Bowls and he was such a prolific kicker — his high, arching kicks left no time for returners to run — that he was credited for the “hang time” statistic being instituted. Guy’s proficiency would get him named to seven Pro Bowl teams, three First-Team All-Pro selections and a place as the punter on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team.
3. Devin Hester – KR/PR
As we said above, Devin Hester had a flair for coming up with big kick returns during his outstanding 11-year career. While most return specialists are known for other things in college, like being a quarterback, wide receiver or running back (to name a few positions) Hester actually gained prominence for returning kick-offs for the Miami Hurricanes. Hurricane Hester played offence, defence and on special teams with Miami and would also earn the alias “Anytime”, in honor of his mentor Deion “Prime Time” Sanders. The Chicago Bears drafted him 57th overall in 2006 and the former high school track star paid immediate dividends, leading the NFL in kick return TDs (2), punt return yards (600) and punt return TDs (3). In his sophomore season with the Bears, he set the NFL record for punt return TDs at four and would end his career with a NFL record 14 punt return scores. Hester owns the record for combined special teams return TDs with 20, including five kick-off returns and one missed field goal touchdown.
2. Jan Stenerud – K
Norwegian born placekicker Jan Stenerud has the distinction of not only being the first person from his country to play pro football but also being the first pure hoofer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He actually came to the U.S. on a ski jumping scholarship to Montana State, a more apt sport for Scandinavian athletes. One day he was horsing around kicking a football (he played soccer as a youth) when a basketball coach noticed him and notified the football coach of his strong leg. After a good collegiate career as both a kicker and ski jumper, Stenerud was drafted 24th overall by Kansas City in 1966 and would be one of the first football players used solely as a field goal and kick-off specialist. His pioneering “soccer style” kicking would see him lead the NFL in field goals made three times and he would end up 13th on the all-time list with 373. Stenerud won a Super Bowl (IV) with the Chiefs and was a seven-time All-Pro in 19 seasons.
1. Steve Tasker – Gunner
We think the only reason Steve Tasker isn’t in the Hall of Fame is the fact that despite his special teams wizardry for several AFC Champion Buffalo Bills teams, he never actually won a Super Bowl. A wide receiver/gunner at Northwestern, Tasker wasn’t selected until the ninth round (226th overall) of the 1985 draft by the Houston Oilers. Tasker, a smallish player at 5’9″, 183 lbs., quickly gained a reputation as one of the most feared hitters in the league, his hits forcing many a fumble. He is widely considered to be the best special teams player of all-time and is even ranked no. 9 among the NFL Network’s “Top 10 Players Not In The Hall of Fame.” Tasker went to seven Pro Bowls and has the distinction of being the only MVP in the history of the game to be named MVP based on special teams contribution.