A Q&A with Cardinals special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers
TEMPE, Ariz. – Special teams failures played a key role in the Cardinals’ 7-9 and 8-8 records the past two non-playoff seasons. Missed field goals by Chandler Catanzaro and Phil Dawson, blocked kicks, blocked punts, long returns and other mental errors may have cost former special teams coordinator Amos Jones his job anyway, had coach Bruce Arians not retired.
New specials teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers isn’t interested in talking about the past. He has his hands full trying to learn a new organization and new personnel, while sorting out the impact of several rules changes to kickoffs this season.
Rodgers, 40, was the Chicago Bears special teams coordinator the past three seasons. He also coached the transition game for the Denver Broncos (2011-14), Carolina Panthers (2009-10) and San Francisco 49ers (2003-07).
Among his most notable achievements:
— 49ers long snapper Brian Jennings and punter Andy Lee (now with the Cardinals) earned Pro Bowl selections and Lee set an NFL single-season record with 42 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
— The Broncos returned six punts for touchdowns in Rodgers’ four seasons there, tied for the second-most in the NFL over that span. Kicker Matt Prater made the Pro Bowl after setting team records for scoring and field-goal percentage, and in 2012, the Broncos allowed the second-lowest punt return average.
— The Bears’ Deonte Thompson ranked second in the NFL two years ago in kickoff return yards (804) and kicker Robbie Gould’s 33 field goals were tied for the second most in 2015.
ArizonaSports.com caught up with Rodgers for a quick Q&A on Thursday.
Do you have an overarching philosophy for special teams?
Rodgers: “I don’t know that it’s any different from what most guys would say. You’re trying to figure out what the players do best and put them in those positions as often as possible. Individually, we’re trying to scheme things for them to play fast. I’ve said this to our players and I’ve said it in the past: We acquire players who may run 4.4 at The Combine. I don’t want them playing at 4.7, 4.8 because they are thinking too much. We’re trying to make it as simple as possible for them to react and we’re trying to train them in practice for how we’d like them to react. As many guys as we get on the same page, the better.”
How is that process coming along?
Rodgers: “There’s 10 practices and we’re on practice nine right now. It’s not like we spent 10 practices working on one phase. You get two or three days on each phase. Day 1 is usually a little bit rusty because the guys are trying to figure out exactly what we’re teaching. Day 2 is a little bit better and by Day 3 we’re doing something else. We’re trying to give them a feel for what we’d like them to do, how we’re going to train them and then when we get into training camp, being able to accelerate and grow from there.”
Did you spend any time evaluating past failures or has your work over the past five months all been forward thinking?
Rodgers: “It would be hard for me to make a comparison because I’m not sure what they were being taught or coached. I’m not sitting in those meetings. What we tried to do in the offseason was evaluate personnel, try and get a feel for the skills and positions guys have played. Did they have success? Did they not have success? Schematically and the results frankly wasn’t something that we focused on very much.”
There are a host of new rules concerning kickoffs. Among them: The kicking team will no longer be allowed a running start. Players can’t line up more than one yard off the ball. The kicking team must have five players on each side of the ball. At least eight players on the return team must be in a 15-yard setup zone prior to the kickoff. Wedge blocks are illegal and until the ball is touched or hits the ground, no player on the receiving team may cross its restraining line or initiate a block against the kicking team in the 15-yard area from the kicking team’s restraining line. How do these changes impact what you do?
Rodgers: “[Thursday] is the first time we have done kickoff return this entire spring during practice. We have had plenty of meetings on it but some of those meetings were without the knowledge that the league was going to change the rules (the changes were announced in late May). A lot of the principles still carry over, a lot of the front-line principles, but the back end of the kickoff return is vastly different.
“People keep referring to it as the kickoff rule but it’s really the kickoff return rule. It affects the kickoff return team a little bit more than the kickoff. With the different changes, we’re evaluating ourselves schematically as well as the players right now. There’s some ideas that may look good on paper and may look good or sound good in our heads, but [Thursday] is really the first day we’ve had a chance to implement some of those things so I’m anxious to watch tape and see how it fit in spacing, drops…
“We had the officials out to talk to us on Monday from the league. There was a crew out here [Thursday] and one will be out here [Friday] and there’s another one coming in next week so we’re really just trying to get a feel for, not necessarily the pre-snap stuff. I think that stuff’s pretty black and white. There’s some gray once the ball is kicked off on how things are going to be interpreted. Not that you’re trying to stretch or cheat the rules, you’re just trying to figure out how to coach the players in a way that penalties aren’t occurring and you’re trying to do that as soon as possible.
“Formationally, if the best way to return the ball was as the new rules state now, we all would have already been doing it. There are some things that we’ve got to work through in trial and error and I’m going to be watching the heck out of some preseason tape from around the league, trying to study that as much as possible. All of us are going to hide some stuff for the regular season, but whenever we get into the season, I think everybody will have a fairly decent idea of how it’s going to go. It will continue to evolve throughout the season, but I think the dust will settle by the time the season kicks off.”
Do the changes impact the type of personnel you’ll use on kickoff teams?
Rodgers: “You’ve only got 46 guys up on game day and you’re always trying to allocate that personnel, trying not to wear out a guy who may be playing 70 snaps on offense or defense and say, ‘OK, you’re going to play another 30 in the kicking game.’ We’ve got to find ways to use guys in a way that balances out the roster comp.
“As a whole, they’ll be smaller people. It’s not going to be 11 wideouts and DBs. Linebackers are still going to play. Tight ends are still going to play, but some of the offensive linemen and defensive tackles who have traditionally played in the wedge, that’s not their forte to play in as much space as there’s going to be now.
“I think every team is different. It depends on how you’re built and whatever position you’re going to keep. In a normal year, we’d be trying a lot of different things in the spring to try and get guys as much exposure as we can and then once the season comes and you see who your 53, more importantly who your 46 are up on game day, it’s like, ‘all right he needs to be able to do that because we don’t have anybody else who can do that.’”
Some analysts have suggested the new rules might lead to more pooch kicks. You’re not one of them. Why?
Rodgers: “It might. There is going to be more space between the back end players and the front. You have to have at least eight guys up front and you can’t have more than three in the back end so you have to cover 40 yards of space vertically, 53 yards wide with three people.
“The pooch kick has been used for the most part in two different ways, both as an onside kick mentality where we’re trying to recover it, and to also disrupt the timing of a good return team. There’s more space back there but your coverage players are standing still. [In the past] they may have had a running start and may have been able to run past the front line because they know what’s coming and their angles are going there. They’re standing still now so if the average team is 14 yards back, that means they have a 15-yard head start (with kickoff players lined up one yard behind the line of scrimmage), we’re all standing still and the people in the back end who were offensive linemen which is why you were pooching to them because they can’t handle the ball as well as some of the skill players – they’re not back there anymore. You have better athletes back there who are able to handle the ball, the coverage team is going to be further away so to say that there are going to be pooch kicks all over the place, I just don’t know that’s necessarily true.”
The Cardinals haven’t gotten much out of their return game the past few seasons. What is your confidence level that you can change that?
Rodgers: “I think it starts with your returner. We’ve got some guys that are working in there and one really experienced guy in Pat [Peterson]. We’re trying to find somebody else that can be an experienced guy for us, but again until the lights come on, we won’t know. Christian [Kirk] is the guy coming out of the draft where we liked his tape. The NFL game is a little bit different, but we look forward to seeing what he can do. In terms of the players that we’re going to have at our disposal once the season starts, we’re just going to have to see how that stuff shakes out. It just depends on those body types and how many of those guys are up and active for different positions; how flexible our schematic stuff will be.”
Do you have any kind of a read on other possibilities such as TJ Logan or Rashad Ross?
Rodgers: “I think it’s too early to read on anybody who doesn’t have NFL tape. There are players who come out every year in the draft who we all evaluate as being really good returners and for one reason or another they don’t have that kind of production as they did in college. Conversely, I coached a player last year (Tarik Cohen) who returned two punts his entire college career, one was for a touchdown and the other was a fair catch. You didn’t know what he was going to be like and he ended up having a decent year. Until the lights come on and all the situational stuff…
“Any time you have a young player or any time a guy is inexperienced, you’re going to have some hiccups. You hope it doesn’t cost you but some of the decision making, specifically with the punt – when to field the ball and when not to field the ball, the communication part of it – those are things we do cover and you just hope it sinks in enough to show up on game day.”
Do you envision a role for Patrick Peterson in the punt return game?
Rodgers: “We’ll see. He’s certainly a talented guy. I know what it’s like to be on the other sideline when 21 is back there. Having him on our team is certainly a plus. We’ll see how it shakes out once the season starts.”
You lost a standout special teams player in Justin Bethel. How do you adapt?
Rodgers: “Every organization I have been with every week, you’re constantly adjusting. Whether you lose a player in free agency or you have an injury or suspensions, you’ve got to be ready to play without guys. Usually, specific to the kicking game, there’s always young players that emerge, guys that don’t have a lot of experience. We’ll find out over time who those players will be. We don’t kick off against Washington for a long time. You hope that some of the guys that are showing some good things now continue to grow. At some point every one of those guys you are thinking is a good player was a complete question mark, unknown, is he going to be able to do it on game day?
What is your comfort level with punter Andy Lee, kicker Phil Dawson and long snapper Aaron Brewer?
Rodgers: “Coming into this job there was three guys in the entire organization that I had familiarity. Our snapper, our kicker and our punter. I’ve known them for a long time personally. I think Andy had a solid season last year. There was a couple kicks Phil would like to have back but he really struck the ball well and made some big kicks in some big games and [rookie] Matt [McCrane] is competing with him. I like where those guys are. You feel good about their history. There’s game tape. There’s verified success in the NFL and we’re just trying to do the best we can to continue that success.”
It’s been stated numerous times, but what is your belief about the impact special teams can have on a team’s success?
Rodgers: “There have been teams over the last 10 to 15 years that have been average on offense or defense and really dynamic in the kicking game and made the playoffs and won playoff games. Conversely, there have been teams that have dominant offensively and defensively but been not good in the kicking game and they’ve suffered because of it. We’re trying to find ways to be successful no matter what. You realize there are going to be some things that come up that are going to be roadblocks in that regard but you’re trying to overcome it with contingency plans and all those things. I’d answer your question this way: It can impact a game immensely, positively or negatively, but we’re just trying to do our part to put the guys in the best position to be successful.”