Caldwell Expects Special Teams to be Playoff-Caliber Moving Forward
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to special teams, Jim Caldwell sees things simply.
Caldwell, who succeeded Tony Dungy as head coach in mid-January, soon thereafter replaced special teams coordinator Russ Purnell with Ray Rychleski, who spent the last 16 years as an assistant at Wake Forest, Maryland and South Carolina.
Recently, Caldwell was asked where he expected improvement from special teams this season.
Punt returns? Kickoff returns?
Kickoff coverage? Punt coverage?
Caldwell, who coached with Rychleski at Penn State in the early 1990s before hiring him at Wake Forest from 1993-2000 and moving him to special teams during their tenure there, said simply that the Colts special teams must be playoff caliber.
And really, he said, a bit better than that.
So, where must the Colts improve?
"All across the board, really," Caldwell said recently in an interview for this story on the Colts' special teams, the last of a position-by-position series on the Colts' roster that has run on Colts.com in recent weeks.
"No. 1, what we have to look at is play that is representative of a playoff team – first of all, representative of a division winner, because that's the first thing we have to do, is find a way to win our division. If we find a way to do that, obviously we'll have an opunity to get into the playoffs.
"That's our main goal, so what's it going to require? Our special teams have to measure up in all of those areas to that level of play."
Rychleski, who coached last season as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at the University of South Carolina, spent seven seasons before that as special teams coordinator and tight ends/H-backs coach at Maryland. Before that, he coached under Caldwell at Wake Forest.
"I am just ecstatic to go to Indianapolis," Rychleski said in January. "The organization is top shelf. I am in a phenomenal situation. We have a Hall of Fame quarterback, and one of our goals besides winning the Super Bowl is winning our division. Doing that gives you a chance at winning the ultimate goal.
"This is a fantastic opportunity."
With Indianapolis, Rychleski will inherit a special teams unit that features one of the NFL's top kickers, 14-year veteran Adam Vinatieri, as well as veteran long snapper Justin Snow.
Vinatieri, long considered one of the top clutch kickers of all-time, converted 20 of 25 field goals and 43 of 43 extra points last season and scored 103 points. It was his 13th consecutive season with more than 100 points. He had made 23 of 29 field goals the previous season, and this past season, he had eight touchbacks.
Caldwell said Vinatieri maintaining his leg strength is a bi-product of training and focused offseason approach.
"I think one of the things you can certainly say about him is he's a guy who understands his body," Caldwell said. "He has been around long enough to know how to take care of it, to know how not to overwork his leg. You saw evidence of that last fall.
"He did kick the ball extremely well and certainly had the power we anticipated and did a great job."
Snow, a 10-year veteran, never has missed a game in nine NFL seasons and Caldwell said, "Justin has done a great job snapping and we anticipate he'll continue to do so."
While Snow and Vinatieri will return next season, the third member of a trio of Colts players who have played entirely special teams in recent seasons may not. Hunter Smith, a seventh-round selection in the 1999 NFL Draft and the team's punter the last 10 seasons, became an unrestricted free agent following the season. Although there is a chance he could return, he has not yet re-signed.
First-year veteran Mike Dragosavich is the only punter currently on the roster. He originally signed with New England following the 2008 NFL Draft and the Colts claimed him off waivers in February.
The Colts' 44.2-yard average on punts ranked them 12th in the NFL last season.
"Obviously, in terms of free agency, it's kind of up in the air, but the thing you can count on is we'll have an effective punter in that position," Caldwell said. "It's an important position for us, and obviously it has a great bearing on winning the field position battle for us."
Colts opponents averaged starting at their 26.5-yard line last season on kickoffs. The Colts did not allow a kickoff return for a touchdown last season. They allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2007, two in 2006 and one in 2005. The Colts' 20.8-yard average on 63 kickoff returns ranked them 28th in the NFL. Their 6.0-yard average on 22 punt returns tied for last in the NFL with Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh.
Cornerback T.J. Rushing, the team's punt and kick returner in 2007, sustained a season-ending knee injury during preseason, and the punt return and kickoff return duties were shared by several players. Three players – Pierre Garcon, Chad Simpson and Justin Forsett – returned at least 10 kickoffs, with Simpson averaging 22.9 yards on 15 returns.
Keiwan Ratliff, a veteran corner who has not been re-signed for next season, returned 16 punts for a 5.6-yard average.