KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Dave Toub has earned over the years a reputation for being one of the NFL's best special teams coordinators. He's the coach who helped turn the Bears' Devin Hester into a returner extraordinaire, and leveraged Tyreek Hill's speed and quickness into a game-breaking star long before Hill became an All-Pro wide receiver.
Toub has his work cut out for him this year.
The guys who fill out the kickoff, punting and return duties are often the last few guys on the roster, chosen in part for their ability to back up offensive or defensive positions and, in part, to help on special teams. They are the last wide receiver, the last defensive back, the last linebacker that makes the 53-man cut before the first week of the regular season.
And often, they earn those jobs based on performances in preseason games. They have four chances to prove themselves against real competition, often getting extended reps at their usual positions as teams rest their regulars.
But without any preseason games because of the altered training camp due to the coronavirus pandemic, Toub and special teams coaches across the league are having to make those weighty decisions based solely on practice.
“When we had preseason games, it was a big factor,” Toub said, “especially on special teams because that was the only time we really went live and saw somebody tackle or block live. Now we have to make decisions off of practice.”
That means a lot of late nights holed up (socially distanced) with other coaches inside the Chiefs' training complex.
“We go over each guy and evaluate each guy and we put grades on them," said Toub, whose special teams wizardry has earned him several interviews for head coaching jobs. "Obviously, all we're doing is looking at practice, and that's all we really can do. Everybody's in there and everybody hears what each guy says, so we know where everybody stands.”
Take the race to become the fifth or sixth wide receiver on the Kansas City roster. You won't find Hill or Sammy Watkins racing downhill to cover punts, so it's incumbent on guys like Byron Pringle, Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter to show that they can tackle as well — maybe even better — than they catch the football.
When it comes to linebackers, they had better be able to run. Defensive backs better not be afraid of contact.
“Everybody has a role on special teams,” Toub said, “and every one of them brings something to the table.”
The guys who are on the periphery of the roster know where they stand, too. They understand that Clyde Edwards-Helaire and DeAndre Washington are going to make the team, but the chance to be the third running back could be predicated on whether they can pick up a blitz on the punt team or stick a return man in kickoff coverage.
“We want all of those guys to understand the importance of playing special teams as well,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said, “because when it's all said and done, all of us have to have a role that's going to help us be at our best. And regardless of whatever hat you're wearing, you have to wear it with authority.”
Bieniemy makes a prescient point: Often the ability to play special teams is less physical than it is mental. It takes the right kind of go-for-broke attitude to know there's a chance you'll be hitting someone at full speed, even with rule changes over the last few years that are designed to enhance player safety.
That's why the Chiefs practice special teams as much as anybody. And why they do it at breakneck speed.
“Absolutely. The better we are on both sides of the ball and special teams, the better football team we’ll be,' Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I love the fact that they’re challenging. They’re going back and forth. Great energy, we’re getting a lot of work with ones versus ones, which I think is important, and they’re pushing through and challenging each other every play, which does nothing but make you better.”
NOTES: C Austin Reiter missed practice Friday with a knee injury. ... DE Alex Okafor (calf), OL Yasir Durant (concussion) and Deon Yelder (groin) also missed practice. ... The Chiefs officially signed former Dolphins C Daniel Kilgore after he agreed to a deal last week but had to undergo COVID-19 testing. He started 13 games for Miami last season. The Chiefs waived LB Emmanuel Smith with an injury designation to make room for Kilgore on the 80-man roster.
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