Tom Rouen is a good example of how when a punter goes bad, they can go disastrously bad. After an unspectacular but steady career, Rouen's miserable 2005 culminated in 3 touchbacks in Seattle's first four drives of Super Bowl XL, each punt could have easily been pinned within the 20 by an even competent kicker. Those blunders allowed Pittsburgh to stay in a battle of field position that Seattle was clearly dominating early on. It was a meaningful but largely unheralded part of Seattle's demise.
Rouen's nadir prompted Seattle to draft a punter in the 7th round of the 2006 NFL draft. Ryan Plackemeier immediately stepped up to be one of the best punters in the NFL. His 45 yard per punt average (gross) was better than Rouen had ever performed outside the thin air of Mile High. And, despite largely the same group of underwhelming gunners, Seattle added 11.7 points from 2005 just through the punting game. On a team that was in a dog fight for a division championship until late in the season, Plack was a very important part of Seattle's run to the division round. Strong legged and with developing accuracy, Plack will be an asset to the Hawks for years to come.
The star of the special teams was, of course, Josh Brown. Brown gets extra points in our memory for his dramatics, but, oddly, the Hawks' DVOA on XP/FG and Kicks dropped a little between those years. Still, Brown improved across the board. His overall field goal percentage improved from 72% to 81%, his success from 40 or more yards improved from 60% to 71%. Brown also improved on kick-offs, showing steady improvement (as he has throughout his 4 year career) adding two yards on his average (62.9 to 64.9) and seeing a marked improvement in his touchback percentage, increasing from a ho-hum 4% to a respectable 16%. To put that into perspective, Brown's numbers mirror Football Outsider's "best kicker in football" for 2004, David Akers: 64.9 kick average, 14% touchback percentage. What everyone will remember about Brown's 2006 was his four game winning field goals. I've harped on the fact that this doesn't imply that Brown has some innate ability to step-up in crucial situations and that we shouldn't expect him to do anything similar next season, but, the fact remains, when the Hawks needed him, Brown came through.
The last member of our little special teams menagerie is Nate Burleson, whose--despite high expectations as a receiver and a decent sized contract--impact was most easily appreciated as a return man. Starting in week 9, Burleson took over a perennially unspectacular Hawk return game and added some spark. His punt return touchdown in week 10 against the Rams was more singularly important to Seattle winning that contest than Brown's last second field goal, because most NFL kickers will hit a 38 yard field goal, but a 90 punt yard return touchdown is a true rarity. Burleson and Josh Wilson are our presumed returners heading into 2007, and both are dynamic runners with big play potential every time they touch the ball. Mike Holmgren prefers a conservative approach to the return game, he absolutely detests shake-and-bake players who run thirty yards side-to-side to return the ball five yards forward (ahem, modern Dante Hall). While we've yet to see how Wilson handles return duties, Burleson is excellent at taking the ball and flying forward while still picking seams for a big return. One has to hope Nate can step it up as a receiver this year, after doing everything imaginable to justify critics who have said that his strong 2004 was a product of playing in Randy Moss's shadow, but he should have little trouble being one of the best returners in the NFL in 2007. Scoring Seattle consistent field position and the occasional jail-break past the fifty and, maybe, even into the endzone.