Jaguars special teams turned in a solid performance under first-year coordinator Joe DeCamillis. Now, if only they can convince head coach Jack Del Rio to stop going for it on fourth down.
DeCamillis and company took some nice rankings with them out of last season. Recently, however, special teams analyst Rick Gosselin of the "Dallas Morning News" announced his annual special teams rankings and the Jaguars came in a lowly 20th.
Huh? Didn't Gosselin see those two long kickoff returns by Maurice Jones-Drew? Didn't Gosselin notice the Jaguars were eighth in field goal percentage, third in opponent average start and 11th in net punting?
Gosselin no doubt saw those lofty rankings, but his rankings also award points for number of field goals made and that's where Del Rio's penchant for going for it on fourth down "killed" his special teams in Gosselin's rankings.
"It was a good start. We can definitely get better in several phases. The players got used to my coaching and I got used to the players, as to what they can do physically and mentally," DeCamillis said of his special teams' performance in 2007.
The season was highlighted by Jones-Drew's 96-yard kickoff return in the Jaguars' postseason win in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had just marched the ball down the field to score on the game's opening possession, and then Jones-Drew responded with his long return. It may have been the biggest play of the season for the Jags.
"For me, the highlight of the year was the overall coverage. I thought the coverage, both on punts and kickoffs, improved over the year before, with the exception of the (second) Houston game," DeCamillis said. "The big plays that happened; definitely Maurice's return against Pittsburgh, the reverse to Scott Starks against Oakland got the momentum going our way. Unfortunately, the other two – Jones-Drew's kickoff return for a touchdown against New Orleans and his 62-yard kickoff return against Indianapolis at the start of the second half – were in losing efforts."
Jones-Drew was somewhat of a boom/bust returner in '07. His long returns made highlight reels, but consistency was lacking.
"You have to be careful of how many touches (on kickoffs) he gets because he's getting more touches on offense. As he gets more comfortable back there he's going to get more punt returns. I think he's going to get more comfortable as he goes," DeCamillis said, referring to Jones-Drew's ability to field punts.
Mere mention of his coverage units heightened DeCamillis' energy.
"The punt coverage part of it was the biggest thing. We went from 32nd to 11th. That was the first thing we had to do. The second thing we had to do was create an atmosphere that they were really playing fast in all phases. The third thing was create more big plays and I think we have a ways to go on that," DeCamillis said.
Jones-Drew isn't the Jaguars' only special teams star.
"Montell (Owens) is ready to shine as a special teams player in this league. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. (Chad) Nkang is the best pure tackler we have on the team. He needs to keep maturing and keep growing as a player," the coach added.
DeCamillis' "Big Four" of special teams play are: punt coverage, kickoff coverage, punt return and kickoff return. "I thought three out of those four we were real strong in. Kickoff return we had some big plays, but we weren't as effective as we can be," DeCamillis said.
Kicker Josh Scobee missed much of the season with a leg injury he sustained in pregame warm-ups for the season-opener. John Carney did a competent job in Scobee's stead and after Scobee returned he missed only one kick the rest of the way.
"Obviously, he was better than the year before. I feel good about him. We have to get him healthy for an entire OTA, training camp and regular season. We have to get him to where he understands that he's got to be a good workout guy in the offseason," DeCamillis said of Scobee.
The Jaguars' other kicker is Adam Podlesh, who was up and down in '07 until late in the season, when he plunged hard in Pittsburgh but rebounded with a strong finishing kick.
"He did exactly what I thought he would do his first year. I thought he would have spurts of inconsistency and I thought he would have spurts of dominance. I think we will see the punter we had at the end of last year starting out next year," DeCamillis said.
DeCamillis teaches the directional-punting philosophy, which sacrifices a loss of distance for a net gain.
"We're never going to be high in gross punting and opponent gross punt. I don't care what our gross punt is, and when they come to this stadium it's going to be good weather most of the time so you're going to get their best punts," DeCamillis explained.
"The three stats I pay most attention to are opponent average start after a kickoff and we were third, our average start after a kickoff and we were 27th, and then net punt for us and we were 16th. Those three stats probably tell you more about field position than anything," he added.