Punters, kickers, and other special-teams players have long remained the unsung heroes of football. But after the outstanding special-teams play on Sunday, that needs to change.
Of the three phases of football, special teams play tends to receive the least fanfare. Analysts and announcers lavish attention on offensive and defensive units, making quarterbacks and middle linebackers out to be the heroes and leaders of football. The men who play special teams—the kickers, punters, return men, and coverage players—only seem to get mentioned if they screw something up or do something spectacular.
But on Sunday, three of the most memorable plays of Super Bowl XLVII took place on special teams, and the Baltimore Ravens, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers 34-31, showed how one special-teams play in a close game can be the difference between victory and defeat.
That play, which will show up on SportsCenter highlight reels from here to eternity, is Jacoby Jones's 108 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was electrifying and critical, giving the Ravens a 22-point lead that would prove insurmountable. Coming out of the locker room at halftime, Baltimore led the 49ers by a score of 21-6 and certainly looked to be in the driver's seat. Then things got even better for Ravens fans when Jones took the opening second-half kick-off to the house, setting an NFL postseason record and making a comeback by the 49ers significantly more difficult.
Jones return also gave the Ravens the somewhat distinct honor of being the only franchise in NFL history to have two different players return kickoffs for touchdowns in Super Bowl competition. In Super Bowl XXXV, in which the Ravens defeated the New York Giants by a score of 34-7, Jermaine Lewis returned a second-half kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown. Even though that game was not nearly as competitive as yesterday's, Lewis' touchdown return was still critical: It essentially sealed the Ravens' first Super Bowl victory. Jones and Lewis are two of only nine players to return kick-offs for touchdowns in a Super Bowl. What's somewhat ironic is only three of those players played for the winning team.
While Jones's touchdown return was the most exciting play of Super Bowl XLVII, it was not the game's first noteworthy special-teams moment. The Ravens special teams made waves long before Jones replicated Ray Lewis's trademark dance in the end zone.
In the first half, the Ravens coaching staff decided to attempt the first fake field goal in Super Bowl history. Leading by a score of 14-3 and facing a 4th and 9 on San Francisco's 14-yard line, the Ravens lined up for what would have been about a 32-yard field goal attempt. But instead of kicking it, the Ravens direct snapped the ball to Justin Tucker who scrambled around the left end and came a yard short of the first-down marker. Even though the attempt failed to produce the desired result—a first and goal with only three minutes left in the half—Ravens Coach John Harbaugh deserves credit for having the moxie to try something so unexpected on football's biggest stage.
The final special-teams play that provided a critical moment of entertainment happened in the game's waning moments. Holding a five-point lead with only 12 seconds to play, the Ravens faced two choices: They could punt the ball from their own end zone on fourth down, a risky proposition that in a worst case scenario could result in a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown, or they could intentionally take a safety, giving the 49ers two points but also providing themselves the opportunity to safely kick the ball from their 20 yard line on the following play.
Coach John Harbaugh wisely decided to go with the latter option, allowing fans to watch Ravens punter Sam Koch take the snap and move laterally around the back of the end zone as he awaited the oncoming 49ers rush. That play provided a moment of visual absurdity that only would have been made more appropriate had CBS scored the sequence with jangly piano music from the silent film era. The play, however, was also quite effective: It burned about seven seconds off the clock, ensuring the 49ers would only have time for one final play before the game ended.
That final play turned out to be a kick return by Ted Ginn Jr. that did not result in a game-winning touchdown. How appropriate that a contest featuring so many memorable special-teams moments would end with the Ravens special teams snuffing out the 49ers hopes.
It should be noted that the Ravens have excelled at special-teams play all season long. According to the website Football Outsiders, which uses exhaustive statistical analysis to rate and rank professional football teams, the 2012 Ravens featured the best special-teams units in the NFL.
What does this all mean? In the short term, it means that we should celebrate the players on the Ravens special teams for making Super Bowl XLVII one of the most unconventional championship contests in NFL history: It could take another 47 Super Bowls before we see a 108 yard kick-off return, a fake field goal attempt, and an intentional safety take place in the same game. In the long term, we should all pay more attention to the moments in football games when the ball's moving but the offensive and defensive units are on the sidelines.