Colts Special Teams Made Strides Under Rychleski in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – The move was one of the first Jim Caldwell made in his new job.
This was January 2009, and Caldwell – a long-time assistant with the Colts – had taken over as the head coach. There were, he said, a few changes that needed to be made, not so much that there was anything dramatically wrong, but he wanted a better comfort level.
One involved the defense.
The other involved special teams, and while the Colts indeed made well-publicized changes defensively, the changes made on special teams also played a big role in a season that ended with a second AFC Championship in four seasons.
"That was one area we thought that was extremely imant for us to improve upon," Caldwell said late this past season, shortly before the Colts' 31-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium in South Florida.
"We focused in on trying to make certain that we did a number of things better in that area."
The first move for the special teams under Caldwell:
The hiring of Ray Rychleski, who spent 27 seasons as a college coach – including eight under Caldwell at Wake Forest – before joining the Colts shortly after Caldwell's hiring.
Rychleski, who spent his final collegiate season at South Carolina, had developed a reputation as one of college football's most effective special teams coaches. He did so with an infectious, enthusiastic approach that he brought to the NFL, and that players and Caldwell alike said infused the special teams with an energy this season.
"I think that's why he's effective," Caldwell said. "That's what the players sense. He's also very consistent. He's going to tell you loudly when you're right – he'll encourage you – and he'll do the same thing when you're wrong. But he's a guy with a big heart. When I tell you he loves the game, he loves it."
Said Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, "He brings a lot of excitement and a lot of fresh, new excitement – that college atmosphere – to it. It's good for the team."
Upon Rychleski's arrival with the Colts, Caldwell said the mission involved several areas.
The other was to solidify the punting situation.
One was to improve the team's coverage units.
"Coverage teams, we had to make certain they were better," Caldwell said.
The Colts' kickoff coverage the previous four seasons finished no better than 13th in the NFL in opponents' average start on kickoffs, ranking 13th in 2008 (26.5-yard line), 20th in 2007 (29.0), 29th in 2006 (30.3) and 29th in 2005 (30.6). They did not allow a kickoff return for a touchdown in 2008, allowing three in 2007, two in 2006 and one in 2005. They also allowed one by Chicago Bears returner Devin Hester in Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season.
This past season, they allowed one kickoff return for a touchdown – a 106-yarder to Brad Smith in a late-season, 29-15 loss to the New York Jets – but finished the season with opponent averaging starting at the 25.1-yard line. That ranked seventh in the NFL.
The reasons for the improvement were many. The Colts in the offseason didn't just add Rychleski. They also early in the season added defensive back Aaron Francisco, the special teams captain of the Arizona Cardinals the previous season, as well as rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey, rookie cornerback Jerraud Powers and rookie linebacker Ramon Humber.
Humber, a free agent, led the Colts with 17 special teams tackles, with Francisco and Lacey registering 11 each.
As key was the addition of Pat McAfee, a rookie punter from West Virginia.
McAfee averaged 44.3 yards per punt, with 21 punts inside the 20, and gave the Colts a punter capable of changing field position in their favor. But as importantly, McAfee – a seventh-round draft selection – also excelled as a kickoff specialist.
In the past three seasons, kicker Adam Vinatieri had a total of 27 kickoffs for touchbacks.
This season, McAfee had 21 such kicks.
"Obviously we had a change in terms of our punting position, so we had to put some emphasis in that area as well," Caldwell said. "Pat McAfee has done a tremendous job."
And overall, Caldwell said while the area may not have been without flaws, there was progress made in significant areas.
"I think we (were) able to show some improvement," Caldwell said. "We (weren't) perfect, but I think we punted the ball extremely well, we covered well, and our kickoff coverage was very good. Overall, I think there (was) new energy, new life and the guys certainly adapted well and were able to be quite effective."