Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A very special unit: San Francisco 49ers loaded with key specialists

By Cam Inman
January 9, 2012

David Akers' four field goals and Andy Lee's five soaring punts were mere appetizers in the 49ers' season-opening victory. The best was yet to come, both in terms of a playoff-bound season and that game.

Ted Ginn Jr. blazed two trails to the end zone in the fourth quarter, returning a kickoff 102 yards and a punt 55 yards for touchdowns to seal a 33-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

With that Sept. 11 opener, the 49ers served notice that defense wouldn't be this team's only trademark unit. Special teams -- what coordinator Brad Seely terms the "dirty work" -- would also be a dominant force en route to the NFC West title and a No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs.

"We give it the importance that it deserves," coach Jim Harbaugh said the day after the victorious debut.

All that practice made for the perfect demise of several records: Akers set league marks by a kicker with 44 field goals and 166 points, and Lee had the best net average ever at 44.0 yards per punt.

Surrounding those two specialists is a remarkably cohesive and effective unit, likely the 49ers' best ever. The secret to their success? Here is a closer look at their six catalysts:

Brad Seely, assistant head coach/special teams coordinator

When Jim Harbaugh joined the Indianapolis Colts as their quarterback in 1994, he heard positive reviews of their former special teams coordinator, Seely, who had assumed the same role with the New York Jets.

Seely went on to win three Super Bowl titles as the New England Patriots' special teams coordinator from 1999-2008, and now he's helped put the 49ers three wins shy of the Lombardi Trophy.

Nicknamed "The Professor" by long snapper Brian Jennings for his installation of detail-oriented schemes, Seely is in his 23rd NFL season. His consistent, straightforward approach has won over players.

"You have to subvert your singular wants for the good of the team. That's what special teams are," Seely said in October, in his only interview this season with 49ers beat writers.

Brian Jennings, long snapper

Since his arrival in 2000 as a seventh-round draft pick, Jennings has forged a fabulous career thanks to his steady snapping skills. He wants every field-goal snap to look like a replay, and he's mastered that craft so well that Harbaugh called Jennings "a Jedi Knight of snapping the football."

The longest-tenured 49er, Jennings' expertise is balanced with a sense of humor and clever wit. Not many NFL long snappers have their own radio show, nor have many shaved their eyebrows during the season. No one other than Jennings has snapped a ball to a 49ers punter or holder since the turn of the century, and that includes the otherwise meaningless fourth quarters of exhibition finales.

Perhaps no other player has a better bond with Harbaugh, who said: "We've had discussions on Genghis Khan to Patton. I try to take time out of my day to make sure I get a little piece of Brian Jennings as much as possible."

Blake Costanzo, special teams ace

If anyone can define the all-out mentality of the special teams unit, it's Costanzo, a fifth-year player whose underdog career has relied upon his fiery style after kickoffs and punts.
"We fight to the ball every time to make a play," Costanzo said. "We have a lot of guys who take it seriously. Guys are willing to give every inch of their soul for the team."

Guys such as C.J. Spillman, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Anthony Dixon, Bruce Miller and Colin Jones. But Costanzo is the special teams' leading tackler, and his hustle is as evident as the colorful, NBA socks he wears daily.

A New Jersey native, he went undrafted out of Lafayette College in 2006. But he latched onto the New York Jets, headed to NFL Europe's Rhein Fire and then the Buffalo Bills. He blossomed the previous two seasons with the Browns under Seely, who's otherwise called "Blake's dad," as Spillman quipped.

"If I was a fan of football, I'd be a fan of Blake Costanzo," Seely said.

Andy Lee, punter

By setting an NFL record with a net average of 44.0 yards per punt, Lee earned a Pro Bowl invitation and first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors. His right leg has been a bona fide weapon as the 49ers have ruled the field-position battle.

But don't forget about his hands. Since 2007, no 49er other than Lee has attempted a punt or served as holder on a field-goal attempt or point-after kick. That amounts to the football hitting his hands 756 times.

"Andy's so much fun to work with because he has great hands and is an athletic guy," Jennings said.

Lee also was a superstitious guy until this season. While he's opted to rely more on his religious faith, he also has welcomed astute guidance from Seely and a growing familiarity with Jennings, who knows exactly what side of Lee's body to deliver a snap when the 49ers opt for directional punting.

David Akers, kicker

A year ago on the playoff stage, Akers inadvertently began his cross-country journey from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Akers missed two field goals in the Eagles' 21-16 wild-card loss to the Green Bay Packers, spelling the end of his 12-year tenure in Philly.

The 49ers needed a replacement for retiring kicker Joe Nedney, and Akers wrestled with the decision to move his family from South Jersey to a rental house in Pleasanton. But Akers liked the 49ers' alluring presence of Harbaugh, Seely, Jennings, Lee and even Alex Smith, whose uncle, John L. Smith, coached at Akers' alma mater, the University of Louisville.

His finances ruined by a Ponzi scheme -- Akers testified about that to a Texas grand jury during training camp -- he signed a three-year contract and became the 49ers' biggest offseason acquisition. Their offense sputtered enough times for Akers to set NFL records by a kicker with 166 points and 44 field goals in 52 attempts.

"We wanted the best guy," Harbaugh said of courting Akers last summer. "That was our first guy that we wanted to talk to, and I know he had other options."

Ted Ginn Jr., returner/wide receiver

Before the season, Ginn took a pay cut. His salary reportedly got slashed from $2.2 million to $1 million. He responded in valiant fashion, clinching the season-opening win over Seattle with two fourth-quarter returns for touchdowns.

No one before in 49ers history had returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns in the same game, much less in the same minute. Ginn pulled off that feat with a 102-kickoff return and 55-yard punt return.
Not bad for a guy who hadn't won the kickoff-return job over rookie Kendall Hunter until the eve of the opener.

Ginn didn't take back any of his other 28 kickoff returns for a touchdown this regular season. But his average of 27.6 yards per return ranked third in the NFL behind the New York Jets' Joe McKnight (31.6 yards) and the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb (27.7).

Aside from kickoffs, Ginn also proved clutch on punt returns, but not only because of the league's fourth-best average of 12.3 yards per return. Ginn has not fumbled this season, not on any kickoff returns, punt returns or his 19 receptions.

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