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Chicago Bears’ special teams among the best in the last 30 years

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Chicago Bears Minicamp

Football Outsiders has been running through a “30 in 30” over at ESPN, by ranking the top 30 teams in the last 30 years using their DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) metric. They are ranking the three phases (offense, defense and special teams) on a team per year basis. They also ranked the top 30 teams and the top 30 individual seasons.

As expected, the Chicago Bears were shut on in the offensive rankings, but they did have one of their defenses sneak into the list. Before looking over the list, I was expecting to see the 2006, NFC Championship team represented, or maybe the 2005 team that lost in the divisional round to the Carolina Panthers. I seem to remember those Ds being really good.

EDIT: This was really neat. Football Outsiders apparently read this article and Tweeted us about the ‘05 and the ‘06 Bears’ defenses.

Neither made the cut, and to my surprise it was the 2012 Bears’ defense that checked in at number 9 on their rankings.

For nearly a decade, Lovie Smith's Bears had excellent defenses built around linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs along with cornerback Charles Tillman. This was the last gasp of that multiyear run -- and surprisingly, according to DVOA, the best. The Bears led the league with 44 takeaways and were tied for fourth at 4.95 yards allowed per play, despite playing one of the 10 toughest defensive schedules in the league.

The next year, Urlacher retired and Briggs and Tillman combined to play just 17 games, and the Bears' defense plummeted from first to 25th in DVOA.

The Bears’ defense may have plummeted from 1st to 25th because Lovie was fired. Defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, went to Dallas. And it was the Phil Emery, Marc Trestman, and Mel Tucker show in 2013.

Football Outsider’s DVOA was much kinder to the Bears, when it came to special teams. On four different occasions, Chicago had their 3rd phase show up on the list, and my initial inclination was ‘duh,’ Devin Hester was a dominating force, but shame on me for momentarily forgetting about the man who may be the best assistant coach in the entire NFL.

Here are the four Chicago Bears’ special special-teams.

28. 2010 Chicago Bears

The Bears appear four times on this list, but this season more than any other was about Devin Hester's dominance. He returned three punts for touchdowns and averaged a league-leading 17.1 yards per punt return, which makes this the most valuable punt return season in our 30-year database.

15. 2011 Chicago Bears

This was sort of a weird off-year for Devin Hester on kickoff returns: He had a touchdown return against Minnesota but was tackled behind the 20 on 17 returns. He was his usual awesome self on punt returns, though, with a 16.2-yard average and two touchdowns. Kicker Robbie Gould went 6-for-6 on field goals of more than 50 yards, and the punt coverage team, led by Pro Bowl special-teamer Corey Graham, allowed just seven returns of more than 10 yards.

6. 2006 Chicago Bears

Rookie Devin Hester made an immediate impact with five return touchdowns during the regular season -- three on punts, two on kickoffs -- and a sixth on the first play of Super Bowl XLI. Kicker Robbie Gould was named a first-team All-Pro, connecting on 32 of 36 field goals, and Chicago's kickoff coverage was outstanding. The Bears stopped 15 kick returns short of the 20 and didn't allow a return of more than 35 yards. They also stripped the ball from returners five times and recovered three of those. Brendon Ayanbadejo and (the other) Adrian Peterson each recorded 18 special-teams tackles.

2. 2007 Chicago Bears

What's better than a Devin Hester season with five touchdown returns? How about a Devin Hester season with six touchdown returns? Hester had four punt returns for touchdowns and a remarkable average of 15.5 yards per return, plus he added two more touchdowns on kickoff returns. But this was no one-man show. The Bears were third in field goal value, with Robbie Gould hitting 31 of 36 opportunities, and the Bears blocked three punts, four field goals and an extra point. (Demonstrating the somewhat random nature of such plays, the Bears blocked a field goal in the first four weeks of the season, then didn't do so again the rest of the season.)

By the way, this is the seventh team on this top 30 coached in some way by Dave Toub. He was the coordinator for the four Chicago teams on this list as well as the 2013 and 2016 Kansas City Chiefs, and he was John Harbaugh's special-teams assistant on the 2001 Philadelphia Eagles.

I don’t recall which Hall of Fame coach said it (I believe it may have been Bill Parcells), but he said that special teams coaches make good head coaches, because they are the only assistant on staff that deals with every position group. At some point, some team will give Dave Toub a chance to run his own program, and I’d be willing to bet that Toub will find some success.