We’ve highlighted Rick Gosselin’s yearly special team ratings the last several years at Windy City Gridiron, and now Gosselin has put together an All-Time NFL Special Teams Unit with the very best of the best in the third phase. As expected, the Chicago Bears are well represented on the team.
As Bears’ fans, we’ve grown accustomed to the importance of special teams through the years. There’s been a long history of special teams success, but that was really brought to the forefront during Lovie Smith’s time coaching (2004-2012) in Chicago. He was one of the few coaches that actively discussed the importance of it, and actually emphasized it like a third of the team. His teams were built around a strong defense, so flipping field position was important. It also helped that one of the greatest special teams coaches of all time, Dave Toub, was working in Chicago with Smith.
Corey Graham, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester, Robbie Gould, and Brendan Ayanbadejo are the recent Bears that made the Pro Bowl as special teamers, but Jerry Azumah, Larry Whigham, and Glyn Milburn take the tradition back through the 2000 game.
Here are the players on Gosselin’s All-Time NFL Special Teams Unit that played in Chicago.
Kickoff returner: Gale Sayers. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 7 (1965-71). Teams: 1 (Chicago). A Hall-of-Fame halfback and a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Sayers led the NFL in kickoff returns with an average of 31.2 yards in 1966. He was even better in 1967, with an average of 37.7 yards per return, but finished second in the NFL to Travis Williams (41.1) that season. Sayers holds the NFL record with a 30.6-yard career average and six touchdowns.
Sayers was such an electrifying running back, with such a short career, that his work as a returner is often overlooked.
Punt returner: Devin Hester. Second-round draft pick. Seasons: 11 (2006-16). Teams: 4 (Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle). A member of the 2000s’ NFL all-decade team. Hester holds the NFL record for touchdowns on kick returns with 19 — 14 on punts and five on kickoffs. He scored a 20th touchdown when he became the only player to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a touchdown, a 92-yarder against the Colts in 2007. Hester led the NFL in punt returns in back-to-back seasons, averaging 17.1 yards in 2010 and 16.2 yards in 2011. He ranks eighth all-time with his 11.7-yard punt return average and also averaged 24.9 yards on kickoffs.
Hester should join Sayers in the Hall of Fame someday.
Since Gosselin is such a champion of special teams, there’s no doubt he would have a 1st and a 2nd team.
Holder: Brad Maynard. Third-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1997-2011). Teams: 3 (NY Giants, Chicago, Cleveland). His primary job was as a punter, and his 1,339 career kicks rank fourth all-time. But he was a master at holding for placements kicks. “He could catch the ball with one hand,” said Dave Toub, his special-teams coach with the Bears. “That was his warmup. He was caught on TV doing that on the sideline. He was able to catch and hold for our right-footed kicker (Robbie Gould) with his left hand-only.” There have been only three 30-field goal seasons in Bears’ history, and Gould had two of them with Maynard holding. A former high-school quarterback, Maynard was adept at fakes on both field goals and punts. He completed 5-of-8 career passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
According to the Football Database, Maynard is third all time in punts inside the twenty. He’s also the all time leader in punting yards for the Bears.
Deep snapper: Patrick Mannelly. Sixth-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (1998-2013). Teams: 1 (Chicago). The Bears are one of the NFL’s most historic franchises with nine championships and 27 Hall of Famers. But no one played more seasons (16) or more games for the Bears (245) than Mannelly. When you’re that good, you can play a long time. His snaps helped Robbie Gould become Chicago’s all-time leading scorer with 1,207 points and allowed Brad Maynard to set a franchise record for inside-the-20 punts with 284. “Mannelly was a perfectionist,” Toub said. “He turned long-snapping into a science. He was the first to count the rotations of the ball on a short snap so the holder never gets the laces, and he also developed cutting edge drills that are used by most special-teams coaches today.”
Bears fans like to put the fan-favorite Mannelly on a pedestal, but he really was that good.
Coverage: Brendon Ayanbadejo. Undrafted. Seasons: 10 (2003-12). Teams: 3 (Miami, Chicago, Baltimore). Three-time Pro Bowl special-teams ace. He collected 187 career special-teams tackles, leading his team in such tackles in seven of his 10 seasons. “Brendon was basically unblockable,” Toub said. “He was extremely fast and very football smart with great instincts. I would free him up to just go to the ball and everyone else just played off of him. He would draw a double team which would free up other guys.”
Ayanbadejo’s block quote makes it three straight that quoted the legendary Toub.
Coverage: Larry Whigham. Fourth-round draft pick. Seasons: 9 (1994-2002). Teams: 2 (New England, Chicago). Two-time special-teams ace. Whigham collected 113 tackles, blocked three punts, forced a fumble and recovered another and earned a spot on the 1990s New England Patriots all-decade team. The Patriots returned his forced fumble and one of his blocked punts for touchdowns. He also intercepted four career passes on defense, including three thrown by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Marino.
Whigham made his Bears’ Pro Bowl after playingon Dick Jauron’s thirteen win 2001 team.
Interior kick blocker: Alan Page. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 15 (1967-81). Teams: 2 (Minnesota, Chicago). Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle. Bud Grant built one of the great kick block units in NFL history with Blair and Page on the inside. Page blocked 16 kicks – eight field goals, seven extra points and one punt. Page blocked five kicks in 1976 alone.
I was recently reminded just how good Page still was when he played in Chicago for the final four years of his career.
Goesslin didn’t just name a 1st and 2nd team, he rounded out a 53-man roster of special teamers which got one more Bear on his unit.
Interior kick blocker: Julius Peppers. First-round draft pick. Seasons: 16 (2002-curent). Teams: 3 (Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay). Nine Pro Bowls as a defensive end and a member of the 2000s’ NFL all-decade team. The pass rush is priority for Peppers, who ranks fourth all-time with 154 ½ sacks. But his special-teams play is a bonus. He has blocked 13 career kicks — 12 field goals and an extra point. A former college basketball player at North Carolina, his leaping ability comes in handy on kicking downs.
Goesslin even jumped in the comment section of his article and mentioned James “Big Cat” Williams as a stand out interior kick blocker.
Montell Owens, who finished his career playing three games for the Bears in 2014, made it as a 1st team coverage player as well, but that was due to his stellar special teams play with the Jaguars.