By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Your anguished eyes weren’t deceiving you while you watched the Bears play special teams last season. Their struggles have been quantified by The Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin, who ranked the Bears’ special teams unit 26th overall in 2014.
When you consider all the folly this past season, it’s hard to believe the Bears ranked even that high. From the carousel of return men who didn’t get a kickoff past the 20-yard line until Week 7 to costly penalties to edges surrendered on punt protection to blocked punts, the Bears’ special teams units were anything but special.
New Bears coach John Fox brought Jeff Rodgers with him from Denver to be his new special teams coordinator. Rodgers’ collective unit ranked 19th in 2014. Coincidentally, Rodgers has been replaced by former Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
To be fair to DeCamillis, he wasn’t given much to work with. When former general manager Phil Emery addressed the media at the midway point of the 2014 season, he admitted that he was using the special teams groups as a means of trying to develop young talent on the roster.
“We’re a team that has not had a whole lot of (draft) picks,” Emery said. “So how are you going to develop your players you keep, when you don’t have a lot of picks? You have to bring in free agents. You’re never going to have a nucleus of young players unless you’re willing to develop the ones you have. So if you bring in veteran special teams players, whatever young players you have are going to sit until the guy in front of them gets hurt. So the only way to develop them as football players is they have to get involved. That’s on (special) teams.”
The Bears’ struggles on special teams started once former coordinator Dave Toub left for Kansas City. Heading into last season, the Bears were assured of a new punter, holder, long snapper and returner. Compounding problems, the Bears primarily used undrafted free agent rookies in “core four” (kick/punt coverage, kick/punt return) units.
Looking ahead to 2015, the Bears should expect a rebound from kicker Robbie Gould, who set career lows in most statistical categories and missed the final four games due to a quadriceps injury. Rookie punter Pat O’Donnell showed flashes, but he finished the season 27th in net punting yards (37.7).
Long snapper Jeremy Cain, who was signed the week before the season, had a dependable season. The late-season acquisition of Marc Mariani also gave the return units a bit of a boost.
Still, the approach to filling out the core special teams players must be rethought by new general manager Ryan Pace.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.