MSU's Third Wheel: Putting the "Special" in Special Teams

Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

Mullen's role as MSU's special teams coach has earned him constant criticism from much of the fanbase. And this year's special teams' play has been especially infuriating. But how bad has it actually been since Mullen's arrival in 2009? Let's play around with some fancy numbers and football words to find out!

During certain times in my life as a Mississippi State fan, specific in-game situations imparted a since a dread. The ball would be snapped and as soon I could tell what was about to happen, my stomach would drop. You know, like whenever our quarterback dropped back to throw a forward pass more than five yards down the field. For a split second, I apprehensively gaped at my television, wondering what could possibly compel or justify such a decision. What followed was either shock (a completed pass), relief (a dud that fell to the ground or sailed harmlessly out of our receiver’s reach), or an all-too-familiar face palm (one of our 150no, that's not a typointerceptions between 2001 and 2009).[1]

While I fortunately no longer expect doom out of our passing offense, a very similar feeling comes over me whenever I see our field goal unit trot out onto the field. No matter the length, hash mark, or situation, I have absolutely no confidence that what I’m about to see will result in points. We’re 6 for 12 on the year, which is good for dead last in the league and tied for 111th nationally. Yikes.

Though this phenomenon is problematic enough on its own, I think it’s safe to say that most MSU fans—at least those of us valiant enough to anonymously gripe about it online—view this as part of a larger dilemma. If I were to poll this site's esteemed readership about State's special teams play under Dan Mullen, and ask them to rate it on a scale of one to Christina-Hendricks-waiting-for-you-at-the-bar-with-a-glass-of-whisky, I’m guessing most would answer in the Boone’s-Farm-by-yourself-at-home-on-a-Tuesday range.[2]

The conventional wisdom is simply this: Mullen’s tenure as a our special teams coach is just not up to snuff. Whether it’s the fact that his attention is spread too thin to adequately handle the job, or that he’s just not a good at it, the fact remains that he’s not getting it done. Hell, even he has quipped every now and again after flubbed fake kicks or busted return coverage that he should fire the special teams coach.

I, too, have largely bought into this school of thought. But when I witnessed our latest round of heinousness against Kentucky, I started to wonder how bad it has actually been since Mullen’s arrival. So let’s find out.

And since I’ve already thrown Devon Bell under the bus, I’ll start with field goal kicking:

Mississippi State Field Goal Kicking

(SEC rank – All games)

2009

6th

2010

9th

2011

10th

2012

11th

2013

14th

We started off fairly strong in Mullen’s first year, but since then have gotten progressively (and substantially) worse. We’ve been in the bottom half of the conference each of the past three years, and barring divine intervention, we’re on the fast track to making it four in a row.

This is obviously huge. In Mullen’s four-and-a-half years as our coach, eight of our twenty-five losses have been by seven points or less. How are we supposed to consistently (or ever) win close games without a reliable field goal kicker?

But that's old news. What about our punts and kickoffs, and our coverage game? Those numbers are a bit more of a mixed bag. Here’s how we’ve fared at returning and covering kickoffs:

Mississippi State Kickoffs

(SEC rank in conference games)

Kickoff Coverage

Kickoff Returns

2009

7th

4th

2010

9th

12th

2011

10th

12th

2012

11th

3rd

2013

5th

5th

It seems to be either feast or famine on kickoff returns. Some terrible years are sandwiched by some great years. We’re down a little from last year’s mark so far in 2013, but we’re still in the top half of the conference. [Note: To be fair, the middle 75% of the conference is all very close in this category. Unless you’re at the very top or very bottom, you’re likely doing about as well as most others in the SEC.]

Our kickoff coverage has, up until this year, gotten steadily worse since Mullen’s arrival. The good news is that if we can keep up the improvement we’ve shown in the past couple of months, we’re on pace to have our best year in this category.

The team’s punt return and coverage units, on the other hand, have usually performed well under Mullen:

Mississippi State Punts

(SEC rank in conference games)

Punt Coverage

Punt Returns

2009

10th

4th

2010

5th

5th

2011

4th

3rd

2012

1st

10th

2013

13th

13th

So our punt return game was quite effective in Mullen’s first three years, though it took a big dive in 2012. Unfortunately, our struggle last year seems to have bled over into this year. And though our punt coverage was dominant from 2010 to 2012, we’ve been really bad at it so far this year. This puzzles me considering that Swedenburg—notwithstanding Bell’s punting against UK—has been our primary punter since 2011. His average punt is actually a couple of yards longer this year (43.7) than in 2011 and 2012 (41.8 and 41.1, respectively), so it looks like the coverage somehow got really bad really fast. That's pretty bizarre given how strong the group was for three straight years.

Stepping back from these numbers proves to be interesting. Over the course of Mullen's first four years, our average conference ranks in punt returns and punt coverage in SEC games are 6th and 5th, our analogous average rankings for kickoffs are 8th and 9th, and our average field goal completion ranking puts us at 9th.

These stats aren’t great. And our already bad field goal kicking seems to be getting worse. But the punting personnel have been pretty good (up until now), and the kickoff units seem to be improving.

So what does this do for our angst about Mullen’s involvement with the special teams? I still have no reason to be comfortable with our field goal kicking (which is completely unacceptable), and our punting units really need to step it up. But maybe I should keep in mind the big picture the next time I reflexively chastise all phases of our kicking game. Sure, we've been inconsistent, which is not as it should be. However, there have been bright spots. If nothing else, it's hard to argue that having punt return and coverage units in the top five of the conference three out of four years isn't an accomplishment.

And on that last point, I’ll leave you with this: As inconsistent or mediocre as we’ve been on special teams under Mullen, most of those units have actually outperformed his offenses on the whole. Since 2009, neither our scoring nor total offensive ranks in the SEC have ever risen over 7th in conference play, and our average rank in both of those categories from 2009 to 2012 is 9th.

So if Mullen needs to be replaced as special teams coach, what are we supposed to do about his offense?

[1] To be fair to Croom, 63 of those 150 interceptions occurred in Sherrill’s last three years. (Man, those were good times, weren’t they guys?)

[2] Props to the random sports fan who came up with the one-to-Christina-Hendricks rating system five or six years ago by getting his email question to Bill Simmons published online. I happened upon it by chance, and immediately realized its brilliance. Wherever you are now, I salute you. Though your contribution to the nomenclature of evaluation has yet to gain wide acceptance, your time will come.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Join For Whom the Cowbell Tolls

You must be a member of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at For Whom the Cowbell Tolls. You should read them.

Join For Whom the Cowbell Tolls

You must be a member of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at For Whom the Cowbell Tolls. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9347_tracker