Special teams is often an overlooked part of football, but it can play a huge part in winning football games. In 2013 the Colts had a good special teams unit, led by one of the best kicker/punter duos in the NFL but also helped out by a good coverage unit.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri had a tremendous season at the age of 41, making 35 of 40 field goals (87.5%), including 15/17 from 40-49 yards out and 4/6 from over 50 yards with a long on the season of 52. No kicker in the NFL made more field goals from more than 40 yards out than Vinatieri's 19. He also converted on all 34 of his extra point attempts. At the age of 41, Vinatieri was still as good as he ever has been and had one of the best seasons of his career and one of the best performances by a kicker in the NFL in 2013.
Punter Pat McAfee also had a good season, averaging 46.0 yards per punt with a net average of 38.5. He had a punt blocked but pinned 27 inside the 20 yard line (a franchise record) with 7 touchbacks. It was actually only the third best season of his five year career and his worst since 2010 when looking at average, but it was still a good season for McAfee and he was as much of a weapon as ever. He also handled kickoff duties once again and was still one of the best tackling punters in the NFL. No one will forget when he laid out Broncos return man Trindon Holliday. It was a 56-yard return, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the reaction of the crowd. Lucas Oil Stadium erupted when McAfee laid him out - and that's just what McAfee does, as he is as good of a tackler as you will get from a kicker or a punter.
Long snapper Matt Overton also had a tremendous season, and he was rewarded with a Pro Bowl berth for it. In his second season with the Colts, Overton was again great and you hardly ever heard of him - which is a great thing for a long snapper - unless he was down the field making a tackle, because his motor never stopped until the play was over.
The Colts coverage units were very good this year, as they only allowed one touchdown return on the season (on a punt return). They were a big part of McAfee's franchise record 27 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. Sergio Brown was a standout as a gunner on special teams and was among the best in the league. While it is impossible to recognize everyone, I thought players like Andy Studebaker and Darrius Heyward-Bey played well on special teams coverage units too - DHB especially since he switched from wide receiver to special teams player mid-season.
The one huge glaring bad spot for the special teams this year was returner David Reed. He led the Colts with 24 kick returns (no one else had more than 6) and he averaged a respectable 24.6 yards per return. But that is the very reason why I really wish there would be a new stat that we use instead of average and I wish that it would be average starting field position per returner. Reed routinely took the ball out of the end zone and was tackled inside the 20 yard line. While his kick return average on the year was 24.6 yards per return, the Colts average starting field position on his returns was at the 21 yard line. If you take away his only two returns past the 30 yard line (42 and 31 yard lines), the average starting field position for the Colts whenever David Reed returned the kick was at the 19.68 yard line. Remember, a touchback goes out to the 20 yard line. Consider this, too: Reed had 2 returns that didn't even make it to the 10 yard line and 6 others that didn't make it to the 20 yard line. He was terrible, and there were games where the loudest cheer from Colts fans came whenever Reed would take a knee. It was really, really bad but, credit to Chuck Pagano, Reed was cut mid-season.
At punt returner, T.Y. Hilton returned 17 punts for an average of 9.4 yards per return and was a good punt returner again, but after Reggie Wayne's season-ending injury Hilton's returns greatly decreased. Griff Whalen was actually very impressive as a punt returner, returning 8 punts for a 13.0 average and a long of 51.
Overall, the Colts special teams unit in 2013 was very good, but they face big questions entering 2014. Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee are both due to become free agents, as is ace return man Sergio Brown. It will be interesting to see what the Colts do with them, and it could show us just how much value they place on special teams. If they take a lesson from 2013, it will be that special teams can play an important role in games and the Colts special teams unit in 2013 was indeed very good.
SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE: A
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2013 season by position, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: