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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Let’s Talk Sports: 2016 Super Bowl Special Teams

Photo illustration by Nicole Swift
Photo illustration by Nicole Swift

I almost didn’t break down the special teams units for each team and did something else instead. Neither team really boasts anything substantial such as a Tyler Lockett return man or a punter who poses a constant threat to fake, a la Johnny Hekker. But that’s what made me want to break it down, just the simple fact that something could come out of nowhere from one of these special teams — especially since no one is talking about them. Special Teams play has a knack for changing Super Bowls, and big games in general, if a coach can dial up the perfect fake at the right time or a shifty returner can manage to take a kick to the house. It happened in the 2012 Super Bowl when Jacoby Jones ran back a kickoff 108-yards and it happened in the 2010 Super Bowl with a surprise onside kick recovery by the New Orleans Saints; both teams won those games and big plays like those tend to shift momentum.

Carolina Kicking – Regular Season

Graham Gano

Total Points 146 (2nd)
Field Goal Percentage 83.3 (20th)
Extra Point Percentage 94.9 (18th)
Longest Field Goal of Season 52 yards (25th)


Denver Kicking – Regular Season

Brandon McManus

Total Points 125 (10th)
Field Goal Percentage 85.7 (15th)
Extra Point Percentage 97.2 (11th)
Longest Field Goal of Season 57 yards (5th)

Neither kicker particularly stands out. Gano’s total points are so high because the Panthers score a lot, and because of that he gets a lot of opportunities. McManus’ long field goal came in Denver in the mile high air, so you have to take that with a grain of salt too. Regardless, there are lots of pieces of information under the surface that go for and against each team. McManus for example, is in just his second NFL season and his lack of experience could come into play if he has to make a clutch kick. McManus has also attempted 3 onside kicks this season, none of which have been successful. Carolina and Gano haven’t even attempted an onside kick since 2013, just one, and it wasn’t successful either. Gano is a six-year veteran and after having some struggles in Washington, he has stayed above an 80 percent field goal percentage since 2012 (his first season with the Panthers). Gano just isn’t asked to do much (just four field goal attempts beyond 50 yards), but scarily he has had 4 kicks blocked this season. Both kickers are good at limiting returns, with McManus at the third best touchback rate and Gano at seventh. If one kicker had to win me a game, I’d side with McManus as he’s been perfect (and busy) in the postseason. McManus though, will have a lot more work to do with his offense and that could mean more potential for disaster.

Punt and Kick Return Averages – Regular Season

Fozzy Whittaker – Carolina (Kicks) 23.2 yards
Joe Webb – Carolina (Kicks) 22.3 yards
Ted Ginn Jr. – Carolina (Punts) 10.3 yards
Andre Caldwell – Denver (Kicks) 23.1 yards
Jordan Norwood – Denver (Punts) 8.5 yards

Evan Elliott, "Let's Talk Sports" reporter. // Photo by Christina Becker
Evan Elliott, “Let’s Talk Sports” reporter. // Photo by Christina Becker

To the casual fan, one name sticks out like a sore thumb — that would be Ted Ginn. Ginn has seven returns for touchdowns in his NFL career, four of which coming on punt returns. None of the other four candidates have a single return touchdown in their time in the NFL. Though Ginn hasn’t returned a punt yet this season, you better believe the Broncos are aware of what he can do. Several analysts foresee a lot of three and outs for the Bronco offense, if that happens that puts a lot of pressure on Denver’s punter Britton Colquitt with Ginn lined up deep. I’m not going to guarantee a Ginn return for six, but even if he sets up a Panther offense (that doesn’t need any help) with good field position often then that could swing the game heavily in Carolina’s favor.

Each team is pretty vanilla in terms of special teams, but I think Carolina has a slight edge here. The only thing really working against them is a high volume of blocked kicks, and they won’t be relying on field goals anyways. As for the Broncos, McManus could be busy and play a heavy role in the Bronco offense. McManus is just unproven and only time will tell how he reacts to the big stage. The biggest differential for these units is Ginn for the Panthers. Football games can often come down to field position battles and that’s where Ginn could potentially best lend his services to his offense.
Advantage: Carolina… but it’s special teams, so who really knows.


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