Special Problem

 

September 13, 2008

Every sports program has its whipping boy. It can be a player, coach, front office administrator, or owner. After all, no one wins all the time and itís got to be someoneís fault when your team loses. Often the whipping boy does deserve a good amount of what he gets, though sometimes the title is given as a result of a few high profile failures and unfairly sticks. With due respect to the amount of vitriol given to defensive coordinator Bob Gregory and his bend-donít-break defense (which turns into bend-over-and-take-it once or twice a season), the title of Cal whipping boy has resided with special teams and tight ends coach Pete Alamar for the last several seasons.

 

Some Cal fans, myself included, have called for his head on more than one occasion through the last few seasons. Alamar began his tenure at Cal in 2003, year 2 of the Tedford era. In each of his first 3 seasons, his special teams units failed in spectacular fashion in Los Angeles, costing Cal a rivalry game win in each occasion along with at least one long awaited Rose Bowl appearance and possibly a national championship. Those kinds of failures tend to get fansí attention, especially when theyíre in an area as seemingly mundane as special teams. Of the 3 phases of football, special teams is often treated as the redheaded stepchild. Fans tend to want special teams to never get in the way and occasionally help them win. Fans can understand occasional offensive and defensive lapses much more than they can a shanked 30 yard field goal or a kickoff coverage screw-up that leads to a huge return.

 

So what kind of whipping boy is Alamar? Is he inept or did his early and spectacular failings color peopleís perceptions of him to the point where they assume heís a terrible coach and use every small failing as backing of that? And, most importantly as a Cal fan, does Cal need to replace Alamar?

 

Calís football team aspires to be a national championship quality team year in and year out. While you donít have to be great at all 3 phases of the game to win a national championship, you certainly donít want to limit yourself to mediocrity every year in any phase either. The test then should be whether or not Alamar 1) Has produced special teams that on the whole significantly outplay their competitorsí (and thus enhance the chances of winning) and 2) is he capable of having elite level special teams?

 

To investigate this, I looked at the special teams statistics for all 5 of Alamarís full seasons as Calís special teams coach (2003 Ė 2007). All stats come from Calís website and are for the entire season, meaning non-conference games are included. Please note that Calís website did not provide kickoff statistics for 2003 so only 2004-2007 are included.

 

There are three areas of special teams (punts, kickoffs, field goals) and all three will be examined. Punts and kickoffs will be looked at from both a kicking and fielding perspective. Field goal defense will not be examined because I donít believe a team can do much to alter its opponentís chances of making a kick most of the time. Touchdowns wonít be looked at because theyíre already included to an extent in the yardages and are rare enough that they probably wonít provide meaningful information. Blocks wonít be looked at because theyíre also very rare and they depend to some degree on the head coach deciding to go for the block and thus not necessarily a function of the special teams coach.

 

Punts

 

The punting game has been the strong suit of the Alamar regime. Calís punters have averaged 41 yards per punt while Calís opponents have averaged 40 yards per punt, giving Cal a slight edge. The area where Alamarís troops have shined is the punt return game, where Cal has a 50% edge on its opponents averaging 12.6 yards per return to their opponentsí 8.4 yards per return.

 

Despite Alamarís failings in 2007 to utilize one of the best punt returners in recent memory, the overall numbers still show Alamarís punt teams making a big positive difference for Cal.

 

On the issue of player improvement, itís a mixed bag. David Lonie and Andrew Larson were each two year punters. One improved, one got worse. DeSean Jackson was spectacular as a punt returner until his last season when he really fell off. Tim Mixon was the punt returner in 2004 Ė 2005 and improved greatly.

 

The numbers:

 

 

# punts

punt avg

i20

opp # punts

opp punt avg

opp i20

2007

61

41.1

21

68

39.1

20

2006

49

42.6

16

63

39.0

16

2005

61

42.0

21

80

39.3

24

2004

47

40.0

22

79

41.5

20

2003

63

39.4

18

84

40.7

22

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total:

281

 

98

374

 

102

Avg:

56.2

41.0

20

74.8

40.0

20.4

 

 

 

# punt ret

avg

opp # ret

opp avg

2007

18

8.8

21

5.4

2006

27

17.3

19

6.9

2005

28

15.6

25

12.8

2004

27

11.1

18

10.8

2003

37

9.9

30

6.3

 

 

 

 

 

Total:

137

 

113

 

Avg:

27.4

12.6

22.6

8.4

 

 

Kickoffs

 

Kickoffs have been an area of concern among Cal fans, especially with the recent rule changes moving the kickoff back and making touchbacks more difficult. How have Alamarís charges actually done? Average at best. Calís net yardage on kickoffs for Alamarís tenure has been 39.8 yards, basically the same as opponentsí 39.7 yards. One would hope Cal could do better considering that Alamar has been given use of virtually the entire roster, even having Heisman hopeful running back Marshawn Lynch as the lead returner for a long period of time.

 

As for the touchbacks, the numbers are not good. Calís kickoffs have gone for touchbacks a little over 25% of the time. Calís opponentsí kickoffs have been touchbacks nearly 27% of the time.

 

Under Alamar, Cal is not winning the field position game on kickoffs and, with the new kickoff spot, allowing more kicks to be returned is more dangerous than ever. Alamar has not developed kickers who can get touchbacks with any consistency. Alamar has failed to make Cal anything above mediocre in the overall kickoff game.

 

The numbers:

 

 

# kickoffs

avg net

touchbacks

opp # kickoffs

opp avg net

opp touchbacks

2007

72

38.1

4

75

37.5

2

2006

80

40.7

30

53

41.4

24

2005

72

42.2

28

52

40.4

19

2004

80

38.2

15

43

40.8

15

2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total:

304

 

77

223

 

60

Avg:

76

39.8

19.25

55.75

39.7

15

 

 

Field Goals

 

This area is far and away the greatest failure of the Alamar era. Even during its dark ages Cal was able to produce good kickers, even some NFL quality kickers. Yet under Alamar Cal has been abysmal almost every year.

 

Field goals are the special teamsí best direct chance to score points (other than PATs which should be automatic so Iím ignoring them). Having a shaky kicker not only costs you the points from missed field goals but also the points from field goals you donít attempt because you have no faith in the kicker.

 

Cal, under Alamar, has made just 59% of its field goal attempts. That is a horrible percentage. In only one season did Alamarís kickers have a remotely respectable showing, making 15/20 kicks in 2006.

 

Worse, Cal has lived off the chip shots (which should be nearly automatic for any halfway respectable college team). When only looking at kicks 30 yards and longer Calís performance has been truly abysmal with just 47% of attempts being converted. That is the type of percentage one would expect if isolating only kicks of 50 yards or more, not when looking at anything beyond 29 yards.

 

Cal has had NFL quality long snappers and solid holders, so this failing is entirely on the shoulders of the kickers and the coaching theyíre receiving (or perhaps not receiving).

 

What should Calís field goal numbers look like if Cal wants to reach its goals? Take a look at last yearís PAC10 co-champions, USC and ASU. They combined to make over 90% of their field goals and nearly 85% of field goals of 30 yards or more. Looking at the top 5 teams in last yearís final AP poll (LSU, Georgia, USC, Mizzou, OSU) shows that those elite teams made a combined 80% of their field goals and 74% of field goals over 30 yards. Cal, under Alamar, has never matched those numbers and has only come remotely close in one season.

 

The numbers:

 

 

fgm

fga

fgm 30+

fga 30+

2007

13

20

7

14

2006

15

20

10

15

2005

9

16

5

11

2004

9

17

4

11

2003

15

30

9

23

 

 

 

 

 

Total:

61

103

35

74

Avg:

12.2

20.6

7

14.8

%:

 

59.22%

 

47.30%

 

 

 

fgm

fga

fgm 30+

fga 30+

USC

16

19

9

12

ASU

22

23

13

14

Total

38

42

22

26

%

 

90.48%

 

84.62%

 

 

 

 

 

 

fgm

fga

fgm 30+

fga 30+

LSU

25

32

18

25

UGA

16

21

14

19

USC

16

19

9

12

MIZ

20

24

10

14

OSU

17

21

12

15

Total

94

117

63

85

%

 

80.34%

 

74.12%

 

 

Conclusion

 

Alamarís overall special teams are middling at best. There is one area, punt returns, where his unit excels and helps the team. The kickoffs are shaky and donít help the team win. The field goal unit has been an unmitigated disaster his entire tenure and costs the team points on a routine basis. With rare exception, players who stand out on Alamarís special teams do so from their first opportunity; rarely do we see players grow under his tutelage.

 

The bottom line is that good punt returns canít mask the rest of the resume. Alamar needs to be relieved of most of his special teams duties and someone who knows how to work with kickers, especially on kickoff distance and field goal accuracy and distance, needs to be brought in.



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