Off-Season 2008: Special Teams Ace

The last time the Colts special teams were any good, Detron Smith, #39, was a FB and special teams ace for the Colts.
Hope everyone enjoyed the three-day weekend. As we gear up for the NFL Combine (an event some find fascinating, others find boring as hell) I'll wrap up the Off-Season 2008 series, with the last two articles focusing on a need for a special teams ace and additional pass rushers at DE and DT. This article will focus on, quite possibly, the least glamorous need, but a need so strong it literally cost Indy two games last year: Special Teams ace.

By "ace" I mean someone who is exceptionally good at making things happen on special teams. A good example is the Giants' David Tyree. Sure, Tyree will now forever be known as the guy who made "The Catch" in Super Bowl 42, but before that Tyree was an ace gunner on special teams. It seemed as if he was in on every tackle, every loose football, every strip, every downed punt, etc. Rob Morris and Robert Mathis were like this when they played special teams. Now that they both start on defense, it is just not realistic to expect them to play ST at that level. Someone like Tyree, a fourth string WR, is ideal for it. The Colts used to have a specialist like Tyree back in 2002. His name was Detron Smith, made famous as Terrel Davis' FB during Denver's glory years. Smith came to Indy as a FB, but blossomed as a special teams captain. He lasted two seasons, then retired.

Since Detron's departure, the Colts special teams have been one of the worst in football. The blame lies mostly with position coach Russ Purnell, but the reality is Purnell is not getting fired or replaced. Dungy is too loyal. So, what is needed is someone who can truly make a difference on special teams, making key tackles and controlling field position. So, where do the Colts find this mythic special teams guru?

  • Free Agency: It's the most logical place. Ideally, you are looking for a veteran. The Colts have used rookies on special teams for years, and it just hasn't worked. Rookies don't know the tricks of the trade, and far too often get undisciplined in their lanes and allow Sproles-like returns in key games. Likely, a veteran free agent for this job is not a top tier free agent. This kind of guy is likely getting cut to make salary cap room, or is just not appreciated for what he does. If you look at Football Outsiders, who are one of the only sites who employ a custom stat system to track good special teams play, teams like the Vikings and Bills have very good special teams play. The Vikes and Bills run similar offensive and defensive schemes with the Colts, which is important because whoever will get signed will likely have to fill a depth roll on offense or defense. Someone like Tank Williams or former-Colt Mike Doss, both DBs for the Vikes last year, could fill the special teams role. The one I am very interested in is Buffalo Bills WR Sam Aiken. Aiken was a big contributor on special teams,  and at 6'2, 215 he could replace Aaron Moorehead as the "tall" WR in the line-up. LBer Mario Haggan is another Bills free agent the Colts could potch. Haggan is a good special teamer, and his a solid LBer in the Cover 2, which Buffalo runs. Aiken and Haggan were both brought into the Bills by Marv Levy, who is Bill Polian's mentor. So Polian is well aware of players like Aiken and Haggan.
  • Sam Aiken would be a tremendous upgrade as a special teams ace for the Colts. He is a free agent in 2008.
  • The Draft: Like I said, you're really looking more for a veteran here. Rookies are good at filling in roles on ST, and the area is a good development ground for rooks to get their feet wet. But the real playmakers on ST are veterans, and that's what the Colts need.
  • Trade: Like all trades, it's unlikely. However, certain clubs, like the Bears, have players like special teams ace Brendan Ayanbadejo. However, the Bears just offered a contract tender to Ayanbadejo. So, it's unlikely they'd do that just to then trade him. Rashied Davis is someone the Bears could be willing to trade. He's a restricted free agent, allowing the Bears to sign him to a two-year tender and then trade him for a late round pick. Davis hasn't really caught on in Chicago as a receiver, but that might be a bit misleading given the fluidity at QB in Chi-town. Like Buffalo and Minnesota, I'm using Chicago as a standard because their ST are amazing, and they run similar offensive and defensive systems to the Colts.
The Bears Rashied Davis downs a punt, but cries on the inside knowing he still lost to the Colts in Super Bowl 41.

Free agency is the likely place where such a special teams ace will come from. I really have my sights set on someone like Sam Aiken or Mario Haggan. Both could thrive as special teamers and contribute to the offense and defense (respectively) as they both fill needs there as well (Aiken more so than Haggan. While this off-season need is not as glamorous as pass rushers or wide out depth, it's possible this is the most important need to fill. Special teams killed the Colts last year, and it is painfully obvious that rookies are not the only solution. The Colts have to spend a little money and get a veteran in here who knows how to make a difference on special teams.

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