2014 Tennessee Titans offseason positional analysis: ST

After rounding out our looks at the offense and defense, our final stop on our trip around the Tennessee Titans position by position as we head into the 2014 offseason is a look at special teams.

As I keep mentioning, special teams is a bit of an odd fit as a "position" since it consists of five separate and distinct elements, albeit with overlapping skills. These are: (1) place kicking-on field goals and extra points; (2) kickoffs and kickoff coverage; (3) punts and punt coverage; (4) kickoff returns; and (5) punt returns. The kicker or punter is normally the kickoff guy, the same players tend to play on multiple units, the kick returner and the punt returner are often the same guy, and the same guy (the special teams coach) is in charge of this mess. That does not make it not a mess, though, just a lumping of "not offense or defense." As a sign of admirable consistency, though, the Titans were no better than average at any of the five things.

My preferred metric for evaluating special teams play, and not just because I write for them, remains Football Outsiders' numbers. It is those numbers I used to support my statement that the Titans were no better than average any of the five areas of special teams, and their numbers I will be using in this post. The variegated and small sample size nature of "special teams play" makes it even harder for me to judge than offense and defense, and I rarely watch special teams play when I do my detailed review of games. I frankly don't know the first thing about kicking or punting mechanics, so it makes sense to me to judge special teams play on purely an outcome-focused basis. That is what the FO numbers do, and makes the most sense for me (N.B. I may do some writing on this later in the offseason, though probably not for here. It gets complicated.)

The good news is some of the players responsible for the Titans' negative special teams results are already gone. The kicker and punter are under contract, and the new special teams coach whose first season saw the decline from average to below it returns as well. There is a once again a looming potential vacancy at return man, though. Can and how might things improve for 2014? 

One last note: I have already written about the effect of field position on how the Titans did on offense and on defense, which incorporated looks into four of the five areas of special teams play (all but place kicks). While those posts were intended to be a lens onto the offense and the defense, there are some numbers there I will not repeat here just because this post has a different focus.

Rob Bironas was the Titans' kicker in 2013, for his ninth consecutive season in the position. For much of that time, he was one of the best kickers in the league. For the second consecutive season, though, he was below average on both place kicks and field goals. Going 25-29 on field goals seems good, but an in-depth comparison of Bironas to every NFL kicker in 2013 reveals how he was below average. Chart? Chart!

Bironas Distance Every Kicker
10-10 (100%) <30 236-242 (98%)
8-9 (89%) 30-39 265-295 (90%)
5-7 (71%) 40-49 254-306 (83%)
2-3 (67%) 50+ 96-143 (67%)

With one extra made field goal from 40-49 yards, Bironas would have matched precisely what kicker who performed at precisely league average levels would have done. Kind of puts 25 of 29 into perspective, in my book.

Measuring kickoffs is more complicated; gross kickoff stats are affected by onside kicks, always a deeply uncertain proposition. I do not penalize him for the wacky onside kicks, which he made clear were not his idea or to his liking. Having 32 touchbacks on 80 kickoffs seems fine, but it is less good than it may seem. Over half the league (18 kickers) had touchbacks on at least half of their kickoffs. Some, like Matt Prater in Denver, it is reasonable to be behind; others, like Billy Cundiff on the Browns, manage a touchback rate much better than Bironas's while kicking in generally less favorable conditions than are found in the warm weather and domed AFC South. By FO numbers, the Titans ranked 25th in the league in gross kickoff distance.

Bironas is due a hair over $3 million in combined roster and bonus this season. Bringing him back after a down 2012 was not a move I agreed with, but it was not unreasonable. Paying a premium salary for the position for an older player (turned 36 in January) after two consecutive seasons in which he performed below league-average levels at both aspects of his job would be, I believe, a stupid move. Naturally, it would not surprise me one iota to see Bironas stick around for 2014.

Does anybody think of Brett Kern as a directional punter? I certainly do not, nor does it seem like he normally is discussed in that way. FO numbers suggest, though, that he has on the whole performed like one. Including only punts actually kicked (i.e., not blocked or aborted), the Titans ranked eighth by FO numbers even though Kern/the team ranked 26th in punt distance. The reason was superb performance by a coverage team that struggled on kick returns. It would be tempting to dismiss this as a fluke, but this is not the first year Kern and the punt coverage team have had that sort of statistical profile. Perhaps it is time for a narrative change, and I should start referring to him as Directional Punter Brett Kern. Including blocks and aborted kicks, of which the Titans had a couple and from which I draw no specific conclusions aside from respectfully requesting that they not happen again, the Titans ranked 18th by FO numbers, though with a value a touch above league average.

2014 is the final year of the deal Kern signed a few years ago. With a modest base salary my notes have under $1 million, there should be no question about him being back. While punter should not be a high value position in my view, it would not surprise me to see the Titans at least talk to Kern's agent this offseason about an extension.

Beau Brinkley will long snap again, probably. I have no issues with him returning.

On the subject of return men, I am pleased not to have to write about Darius Reynaud or Devon Wylie. Leon Washington on his arrival gave the position some much-needed stability. By FO numbers, he was about average on punts and above average on kickoffs, though of course in the Small Sample Size world of special teams that one long kickoff return against the Broncos is basically the only difference between very average and sixth in the league in kickoff return value. A free agent this offseason, the Titans could absolutely be interested in bringing him back. Marc Mariani is the other candidate from the roster for the special teams job, though missing 2012 and 2013 due to injury, that his contract is now up, and the regime change may send him to St. Louis instead. Alterraun Verner and Damian Williams both also spent time at returner on a "throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks" basis; both are free agents whose fates will depend on the value of their contributions on offense and defense rather than potential return men in my book.

Conclusion-Type Things

Brett Kern and Beau Brinkley both return, and at least should be solid at their jobs. That gives the Titans at least a solid foundation toward being an average special teams unit once again.

Who will be the return man? I thought of Washington primarily as a stop-gap acquired out of desperation, but he did enough he may stick around. A competition would not surprise me there.

Beyond return man, the big question is at kicker. Will the Titans see the same problems I see with retaining Bironas, or will they bet once again on a bounceback season? I do not think they should, but the increased cap amount gives them the room to be comfortable saying they can, and this seems to be an organization that values stability and seems reluctant to admit mistakes. Getting a kickoff man who can get touchbacks more regularly in my view should be a big priority; fewer returns means fewer opportunities against a coverage team that struggled at times last year.

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