Leader of Chiefs’ Special Teams Gives the Humble Punt Its Due
The Chiefs, who play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night in the playoffs, applied that philosophy en route to going 12-4, their best record since 2003, and winning the A.F.C. West for the first time in six seasons. Toub stresses it to newcomers and stalwarts alike, in meeting rooms and on the practice field, until they, too, understand. Twice in Toub’s four seasons, according to data compiled by Football Outsiders, Kansas City has had the best average field position in the N.F.L.
“It’s why the best special-teams players are on punt,” said one of them, the rookie defensive back Eric Murray.
It is also why every special-teams period at practice begins with punting. Murray and his cohorts allowed the third-fewest yards per return. The punter, Dustin Colquitt, pooched the second-most kicks inside the 20-yard line. The Chiefs’ opponents have the fourth-worst average field position.
For good measure, the Chiefs’ punt return unit, led by the rookie speedster Tyreek Hill, produced two touchdowns and the most yards per return.
What powers Kansas City’s special teams, rated by Football Outsiders as the second-best unit in the N.F.L. after the Eagles’, is equal parts talent, scheme and trust. It begins with the confidence Reid has in Toub, 54, his friend for more than 30 years. It enables Toub, with almost the entire roster at his disposal, to make decisions with conviction.
“I wouldn’t say that other ones in the past have looked over their shoulder like, ‘Is this O.K.?’” said Colquitt, in his 12th season punting for the Chiefs. “But Andy trusts him with the whole deal — this is your thing, put your spin on it. He wants to see the Dave Toub side of this play.”
The Toub side manifests itself in subtleties, such as an obsessive emphasis on man-to-man blocking, but also in more audacious moments, such as the fake punt he designed (and called) to perfection in a Week 13 victory in Atlanta or what his former boss in Chicago, Lovie Smith, said would have been “one of the greatest plays of all time” had a penalty not foiled a misdirection masterpiece for a touchdown that bewildered the Green Bay Packers in 2011.
“Sometimes you can hit it just right with the personnel in one place,” said Smith, who hired Toub in 2004. “But what Dave’s done is unique. He’s done it twice. Look at what his special teams do.”
It was Smith who instilled the attitude that the Bears would win because of their special teams, and with 22 touchdowns on kickoff or punt returns (and only three allowed) during Toub’s tenure, they often did. Special teams are thriving again with Kansas City because the Chiefs prioritize them during the off-season, when they evaluate players, and during the season, when critical practice time is devoted.
On Tuesdays after games, special-teams players eagerly await a packet containing grades in multiple categories. They receive points for things like drawing penalties, tackling ball carriers and being the first player downfield on a kickoff. They are docked points for things like missing tackles, committing penalties and not hustling.
Toub and his assistant, Brock Olivo, the first recipient of the college special-teams player of the year award in 1997, also assign grades to 350 potential draft picks. They value two qualities above all: instincts and speed.
“If you have that combination, you know you’ve got a guy,” Toub said. “The floor is going to be at least a good special-teams player.”
If a prospect does not play special teams, Toub and Olivo review his offensive or defensive film and project possible roles. If two receivers or defensive backs are perceived as similar, Toub said, the special-teams mark breaks the tie.
Sometimes the next contributor is obvious from the outset, as it was with Murray, who excelled on special teams at Minnesota. Toub loved Murray’s toughness and intelligence, traits that have served him well with the Chiefs, who depend on him both to make blocks and shed them. His aptitude landed him on Pro Football Focus’s All-Pro first team.
“A lot of times, we match up against people who weigh 250, 260,” said Murray, listed at 5 feet 11 and 199 pounds, “but even though we’re smaller, Dave always says to punch them in the mouth. We’re relentless.”
The constant churn at the bottom of the roster can destroy special-teams continuity, but the Chiefs’ unit has maintained a strong core — Frank Zombo, Anthony Sherman and Daniel Sorenson have played the last three seasons, for instance — supplemented by eager young players who volunteer for assignments.
Recent drafts have netted D. J. Alexander, De’Anthony Thomas, Demarcus Robinson and Hill, who has returned three kicks (two punts, one kickoff) for touchdowns. Toub called Hill the fastest player he has ever coached — faster even than Devin Hester, regarded as one of the best returners ever.
Toub has been fortunate to be able to deploy Hill (and Hester), but he specifically tells his charges not to expect Hill to depend solely on his physical gifts.
“He knows it’s not like a video game, that Tyreek’s not going to make everybody miss,” Colquitt said. “When you go back and look and see how he got to the end zone, it’s because 10 guys are dedicated to blocking for him, doing exactly what was drawn up during the week.”
Thirty years ago, those organizational skills appealed to Texas-El Paso Coach Bob Stull, who gave Toub, a two-time all-conference offensive lineman at the university, his first full-time coaching job in strength and conditioning.
Unlike many of his peers in that era, Stull said, Toub maintained records of his players’ progress in major lifts, first at UTEP and then at Missouri.
It was there, in 1998, where he shifted to coaching football, after the sudden death of Missouri’s defensive line coach. And it was also there, Stull said, where Toub, a gifted carpenter, built a home and started renovating others.
Decades later, Toub remains a meticulous craftsman. He just found another outlet.
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