By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) They aren’t going to win you a whole lot of games, but they can easily cost you one. Much of special teams is an afterthought. Other than a superstar kick returner — which NFL rule changes have all but eliminated — or terrific field goal kicker, the kick coverage, extra point block formation, etc. are, well, the et cetera of football. Like not watching a longsnapper until he screws up, you just assume competence enough to not make you say, “Whoa whoa whoa, what the hell happened?” on your way back from the bathroom.
I found myself saying that multiple times Sunday as the Chicago Bears snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Carolina Panthers. The reflex is to yell about Jay Cutler because part of being a quarterback is absorbing both praise for wins and heat for losses.
“There were many opportunities for us to close it out offensively,” Cutler said while probably beating an old man in a wheelchair with a kitten (maybe — I don’t have a press credential). “We put our defense in a really bad spot. I thought they played really well given the circumstances and some of the field position we put them in. Offensively, a lot of that was on me. We just have to play better.”
The next step in the logical process of Bears fans’ anger is to attack Mel Tucker’s defense. Except it really wasn’t all that bad. The Panthers had a blah 321 yards of offense and three turnovers. Perfect game by the defense? No, but certainly not what the loss should be pinned on.
Which brings us to that aspect of Bears football that likes to tip-toe out of the party when everyone is trying to figure out who yacked in a dresser drawer. Special teams cost the Bears a win by being laughably incompetent Sunday. There is a documented 10-point swing on its play alone, not to mention potential scoring drives impeded by starting before the 20-yard line after a kickoff. And whose fault is it all?
Joe DeCamillis has done next to nothing to prove he’s a decent special teams coordinator. The Bears were always in the top 10 of special teams under now-Chiefs coordinator Dave Toub. After DeCamillis replaced Toub, the Bears dropped to 23rd in the league, while Kansas City went from 23rd to third. Football Outsiders shows the Bears are again below average through the first four weeks of this season (the most up-to-date numbers as of this writing), and I can’t think the numbers will be crunched more positively after the Week 5 debacle.
The Bears are undisciplined and pretty stupid right now when kicks of any sort are involved. Robbie Gould missing a chip shot Sunday is a fluke.
The guy you picked up off the trash heap with a heartwarming story of never playing college freaking football running straight into a punt returner and then no Bear picking up the loose ball or deciding to tackle the Panther who got ran into and did pick up the ball for Carolina’s first punt return touchdowns since Bruce Almighty was in theaters — not a fluke. That’s putting out a small fire with hairspray. Does the ‘Nam flashback of a similar play last year against the Packers ring a bell?
Dudes whose names I don’t know fielding kickoffs in the end zone and thinking, “Yeah, I got this,” and then waking up on the 13-yard line — not a fluke.
Defensive holding called on Jon Bostic on a Packers field goal attempt — a fluke and a ref who probably walked into that play thinking, “Hey, been a while since I called one of these.” But still.
The punter being middle of the pack in the league in punting average — who knows with a rookie with a huge leg. He is 30th in the NFL in net average, though, and that’s probably not a fluke.
DeCamillis is coach Marc Trestman’s hire. He can easily be Trestman’s fire, too, though would firing the guy now change anything? And even if it is an aspect of the team that Trestman isn’t expected to be hands-on with, isn’t a clueless unit a reflection of the head coach? Recall, too, that Trestman made the decision in the final preseason game to not play many reserves who probably could’ve used an extra play or 10.
Trestman didn’t sign the on-field personnel the Bears have to work with, though. General manager Phil Emery knew last year, this past offseason and this preseason that the team had no kick returner. Emery decided that special teams could probably get by with a group of guys just happy to be here. He’s been quite wrong so far.
Blame the special teams players for being dumb. Blame DeCamillis for coaching them dumb. Blame Trestman for letting them be dumb. Blame Emery for bringing in the dumb.
While for all the wrong reasons this unit is no afterthought, it will continue to not be the acceptable neutral every team would be satisfied with that leaves it up to the offense and defense to decide outcomes. That’s really unfortunate. As is me no longer being able to use the bathroom during games.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.