Or, more accurately, does special teams decide games? Given that the relative number of minutes spent in this 3rd Phase of football is paltry, the impact it can have on the W-L tally is astounding.
Promoted to the Front Page from the Fanpost section.
3rd Phase - Special Teams:
Kicker: Sure, having a guy who can boot it through the uprights from 60 yards is great, but what a team really needs from its kicker is dependability. They want the peace of mind that, if the offense falters 10, 20, 30 yards from the endzone, the kicker can make the drive worth 3 points. They also want a guy who can make the clutch kicks to tie/win games. Just ask the Ravens.
Bears: Is anyone complaining about Robbie Gould's kicking prowess? The lone knock against him use to be his relative lack of leg strength, but after going 6/6 from 50+ this year, I'd wager those doubts are assuaged. And to think he was a UDFA (SeaBass, I'm looking at you...).
Punter: While no one likes it when the punter has to come on the field, we'd all love that he can do his job well. What's his job, you ask? Simply, to make sure that the other team has a looong way to go if they want to score a TD. Usually working in tandem with the coverage team, a punter needs to be able to get both height and distance on his punts, giving the gunners time to get down there and backing up the opponent as far as possible. Also useful is the ability of directional punting, enabling one to pin a returner on the sideline near his own endzone.
Bears: Podlesh was pretty good last year. He's no Shane Lechler (seriously, where do the Raiders find these Guy's?), but he's definitely not a weak link. He's got a strong, accurate leg, which is about what you can hope for these days.
Returner: Punt and Kickoff return-TD's are the most exciting plays in football. They are also fraught with challenges. There are definitely many opportunities to make a mistake (muffs, fumbles, not getting the right bounce, etc.), but if a guy can utilize his blocks and God-given talent effectively, he can swing the outcome of a game. And these guys aren't always who we thought they were.
Bears: Devin Hester, aka Ridiculous, the GOAT. Moving on...
I've alluded to it a couple of times previously, and I'll go ahead and mention it again: Teamwork is the key to football. No one on offense, defense, or special teams can do anything on his own. A quarterback needs an O-line to block and receivers to catch the ball; a CB is counting on his line getting pressure so he doesn't have to cover a man for 6, 7 seconds; a return guy is counting on his blockers to open a lane and not draw a yellow flag. Having a team that plays as one, cohesive unit is essential to winning games. Especially the Big One.
Coaching also goes a long way in determining how well a team performs. Having coaches who know how to alter the scheme to the strengths of their personnel is always a plus. Look at Tim Tebow last year: here's a QB who, for all his character and charisma, is simply not very good at throwing a football (Relative to other NFL quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez excepted). However, a coaching staff that was willing to cater to his abilities helped the Broncos end up in the playoffs. Also, coaches play a pivotal role as motivators, especially when a team is down. That's not to take away from their primary position, which is a strategist and leader.
Another factor in winning ballgames is, put simply, sheer dumb luck. The fumbled ball bounces out of bounds, the tipped ball just happens to end up in your guy's hands, the Hail Mary play actually works. I'll lump in injuries here, as a team needs be fortunate in that regard as well. We all witnessed firsthand how one or two key injuries can decimate an entire team. As much as I hate to say it, there is an element of luck involved in triumph.
Also, the general character of the players can affect the team's performance greatly. Is it a group of guys who want to win championships, or a bunch of me-first, diva-esque individuals that ultimately play for the pay?
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fans (especially as I included "4th-phase" in the title of this section). From filling the stands and cheering on our team to the countless dollars poured in that, in reality, allows for the NFL's existence, the fans are an indispensable bunch. The hostility of an away crowd can make it very difficult on offensive linemen, and on the team as a whole.
At the end of the day, though, I believe that winning a football game comes down to effort and dedication. If you've got a group of guys with adequate skill who are willing to play 60 minutes (or more), week in, week out, then you've got a team that can win it all.