If history has taught us anything it is that every play in the Super Bowl is magnified. All three phases of the game are necessary to win and yet special teams, while often getting overlooked in the regular season, holds an opportunity for heart-stopping, exhilarating ways to swing the game in either direction.
The Denver Broncos know all too well how it can take over the big game. In just the past six Super Bowls three plays come to mind. Two years ago the Broncos were reeling in Super Bowl XLVIII when Percy Harvin all but placed the nail in the coffin with an 87-yard touchdown return on the kickoff to start the second half.
One year earlier, in Super Bowl XLVII, Jacoby Jones recorded a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to help the Baltimore Ravens to a tight and dramatic 34-31 victory.
In Super Bowl XLIV, another Peyton Manning-led team suffered an even bigger special teams swing. After trailing the entire game, the New Orleans Saints caught the Indianapolis Colts off guard to start the second half with a successful onside kick. Moments later the Saints took their first lead and would win the game in a 31-17 blowout.
“In this game – I know because I’ve been there a couple of times on the other side of it – any time there’s a negative play, it’s magnified in this game. It’s just hard to come back from. You have to make sure that you’re the one making the positive play. That’s in all phases and definitely in the kicking game,” special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said Friday. “Hopefully it’s a close game and make a difference and get a big play against them.”
DeCamillis went on to comment on every phase of his special teams and has been proud of their progress throughout the season. When asked what he sees out of the Carolina Panthers’ special teams his answer illuminated his biggest concern.
“Ted Ginn. He’s outstanding. He’s scary. He’s got seven touchdowns as a returner. Everybody sees him as a receiver now, but one of the plays that got him started last week was a big punt return in that game. It was almost just like getting another turnover for them really. He’s going to be a huge focus for us. Their overall team speed – they’ve done a good job of getting guys in there that know how to play,” he said.
The Broncos showed incredible coverage skill and Britton Colquitt placed three punts inside the 12 yard line for the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. DeCamillis knows that if they can avoid Ginn returns and place the Panthers formidable offense in tough field position, particularly inside the ten, it will have a big impact on the outcome.
“When you look at the league statistics overall,” DeCamillis continued, “it doesn’t make any difference if it’s the Panthers or whoever it is, the average start has so much to do with the offense’s success. We want to try to get them backed up as much as we can. Obviously, the last couple weeks really, they’ve started off inside the 5-yard-line a few times. It’s ended up being points for us. We want to get that done as much as possible.”
Cody Latimer, Kayvon Webster, Shaquil Barrett and Jordan Norwood have all helped on special teams despite having aspirations to play the majority of their game on offense or defense. They all now have expanded roles on the special teams and realize the importance of those roles.
“Being drafted in the second round I was like, ‘I’m going here to make plays at receiver,’ but it didn’t end up that way so I have to do whatever I can. Right now, it’s to the point where I don’t care about that, we just have to win,” Latimer said Thursday. “Its better than sitting on the sideline. You make a big play in the Super Bowl, everybody is watching.”
Latimer forced a fumble in the first matchup with the Patriots that swung the game; Webster has made several big tackles to place opponents in precarious field position. Brandon McManus, meanwhile, has won games with his leg. DeCamillis has molded players into a reliable unit and through it all he has emphasized the importance of each play, saying, “I think it’s been a really good group so far that has worked at it and has bought in completely, but we need to finish it out the right way.” Barrett has certainly been one of those players, tied for team lead in regular season special teams tackles with Webster and knows what the group needs to due Feb. 7.
“[Coach DeCamillis] always tells us if we get the check mark for the special teams in the game that it will be a great percent chance that we will win the game,” Barrett said Friday. “He always lets us know the numbers and stuff but then he always tells us, our personnel versus their personnel, we are going to be strong and attack their weaknesses. We always want to come out there and make a big play on special teams because we know it can be a game-changer and dictate the game.”
The Broncos have a tough task going against the veteran special teams unit of the Carolina Panthers, but each player has proven that they can come up big when they need to, all they need is a chance.
“It just absolutely a blessing to be in this situation,” Norwood said Friday, just moments after DeCamillis named him when asked about impact returners, though Shiloh Keo and Andre Caldwell will possibly get a chance on punt and kick returns as well. “I’m excited at the opportunity, excited to be in a position to help my team win the football game and I think that is all you can ask for. Whether it is returning, blocking or whatever it is, I’m in a position to help them win.”
The scrappy group of players that have banded together, often in roles they did not see coming, reflects the identity of the team. Each player believes in the man next to him and is ready to rise to the occasion. Super Bowls have been won and lost on special teams and Super Bowl 50 may end up being no different. Who makes the rare but monumental play is entirely up to them, but for the Broncos they have several players willing and certainly able.
“We are all eager and hungry to go out there and make a game-changing play because we know our opportunities might be slim,” Barrett said.
Opportunities may be slim, but just one play is often enough to make history.