THE SPECIAL TEAMS

The Colts' special teams could benefit next season from the return of one of the NFL's all-time clutch kickers, Head Coach Jim Caldwell said recently in the latest of a series.

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Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell Discusses the Team's Special Teams

INDIANAPOLIS – The list focused on experience.

And as Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell saw it, there was nothing on that list to indicate that having one of the best all-time clutch kickers in NFL history back to full strength and fully ready for the 2010 season won't be a big-time positive for the Colts' special teams.

The subject was Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri.

And when asked recently why it was imant to have Vinatieri back kicking full-time next season, Caldwell had his reasons. Very experienced reasons.

"He's certainly been in a lot of big games," Caldwell said recently in an interview for this story on the Colts' special teams, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.

"His maturity, his consistency, his professionalism are things that spill over beyond what he does."

Those elements lead to an intangible element for the entire team, Caldwell said.

"The confidence we have in him in terms of him doing his job is pretty high," Caldwell said. "When he's healthy, he's one of the best in the business."

Caldwell said that could be a major difference for the Colts' special teams last season.

Because much of last season, the Colts were without Vinatieri, a 15-year veteran who will enter his fifth season with the Colts in 2010.

Vinatieri not only was one of the NFL's all-time clutch kickers in his first 13 seasons, he was one of the most reliable. He scored at least 100 points in each of his first 13 NFL seasons and during that span, missed just three games because of injuries.

Last year, because of various injuries, he kicked in six regular-season games, missing the post-season and converting seven-of-nine field goals and 17-of-18 extra points.

Matt Stover, longtime veteran NFL kicker, kicked in Vinatieri's place, converting nine of 11 field goals and 33 of 33 extra points. The Colts did not re-sign Stover in the off-season and shortly after the 2010 NFL Draft signed Brett Swenson as a collegiate free agent from Michigan State.

"I think any time someone's been through what he has been through and had the kind of great career that he has had, it breeds confidence," Caldwell said of Vinatieri. "He has been able to do it consistently, year after year after year after year. I think he's preparing for another great one.

"He went through a tough time last year, trying to rush to get ready. He had the procedures that set him back a little bit. This year, he's not worried about all of that. All he is doing is getting prepared to kick. I know he feels good about his progress. We feel good about his progress."

"We anticipate he'll be back to his old form, for sure."

Caldwell said during Super Bowl week in February that coverage of punts and kickoffs was an area the Colts wanted to improve upon last season. The Colts did so.

The Colts' kickoff coverage the previous four seasons finished no better than 21st in the NFL in opponents' average start on kickoffs, ranking 24th in 2008 (24.3-yard line), 29th in 2007 (25.0), 30th in 2006 (26.0) and 21st in 2005 (22.2). 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.

Part of the reason the improvement – and for the overall upgrade in special teams – 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, Vinatieri had a total of 27 kickoffs for touchbacks.

This past season, McAfee had 25 such kicks.

McAfee said late last season he believed that because he had began punting only several seasons ago he had much improvement to make, and believed he only had begun to reach his potential.

Caldwell said recently he believes that could be true.

"He's scratching the surface in terms of what he's able to do," Caldwell said. "The big thing you have to remember with him is he is talented. He does have a lot of poise. The moment is not too big for him.

"For a young guy, even though he likes to play it loose a little bit, he has good focus. Not only that, he's a competitive guy. I do believe he does have a lot of room for growth and development and that he also realizes, as is the case with a lot of our young guys who had good years: 'One year does not a career make.'

"You have to be able to do it consistently."

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