COSTA MESA, Calif. — When we last checked in with the Los Angeles Chargers‘ special teams unit, there was a lot wrong. There were either a) too many players on the field, or not enough b) punts being blocked or fumbled c) wrong plays being called or d) coaches being changed and changed again.
Basically, anything that could go wrong did go wrong, as the Chargers were at the bottom of ESPN’s FPI special teams rankings for most of the season and finished tied with the Minnesota Vikings for last in the league.
Former coach Anthony Lynn — who took over special teams for Keith Burns (who had previously taken over for George Stewart) after a disastrous 45-0, Week 13 loss to the New England Patriots in which the Chargers gave up a punt-return and a blocked field goal touchdown — was fired at the end of the season. The Spanos family hired former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who brought in Derius Swinton as special teams coordinator to clean up the mess.
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Staley has previous ties to Swinton, as both were on the Chicago Bears‘ coaching staff in 2017. Swinton has coached special teams for eight NFL franchises over 13 years, most recently as the Arizona Cardinals‘ assistant special teams coach last season.
Swinton he says he has already watched every single Chargers special teams play from this past season. And he’s confident he can fix what went wrong, from on-field confusion to working with inexperienced players.
“It’s a process,” Swinton said Thursday. “It’s first, where are we at when we do well with these guys and from there we’re just going to educate them.
“I don’t believe in looking backwards. You just go through a process every day, and then talk. You evaluate first, then you get with each other and they come in and you implement your system around them. The cupboard is not empty here.”
Indeed. If anything the problem was miscommunication — for example, when the field-goal unit and offense were on the field at the same time as time ran out in the first half in Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons, costing the Chargers a chip-shot field-goal attempt.
“I can’t speak for what they were doing,” Swinton said. “You have relative practice, your catalog of situations. And you start talking the same language. The culture from every single person from the head coach to the kicker, maybe even the trainer. They’ve seen it so much they start picking up on it and then you build the community so that when you get to game day, everybody starts to see it.”
Swinton said in Arizona that the entire team would meet and go over situations that could arise. Staley is expected to sit in on special teams meetings, showing how important he views that part of the game.
Swinton said that approach is infectious, to the point that nobody wanted to be left out of Cardinals’ special teams meetings.
“It was like a party,” he said. “It was a mindset. No football game in the history of football has started without a kickoff or a return. It’s a big selling point. Patrick Mahomes is not starting the Super Bowl,” he explained, highlighting that the game will start with a kickoff.
Swinton says he goes by three (phonetic) Fs — Fast, Physical, and Fundamentally Sound. He said his unit will go through the same fundamental drills every day.
“It’s not grammatically correct, but it stays with the players,” he said.
Swinton sees himself more as a caddy than a coach.
“I recommend clubs at time,” he said. “But they’re the pros.”
Swinton also understands attention spans, or lack thereof. He builds five-minute clips of plays, then narrates them and gives them to the players before they are expected to know them. It saves on note taking and allows him to direct players toward watching certain plays in advance. And then the next day, it’s a discussion, rather than a lecture.
“They can learn a new Tik-Tok dance in 30 seconds, so you gotta catch them,” he said.
And Swinton believes in a three-person, play-evaluator team to take pressure off the head coach, or whomever is calling plays.
He and Staley were on the phone texting and talking all through last weekend’s championship games. He can’t watch a game as a fan.
“It’s just not possible when you’re a coach,” he said.
Especially as a coach aiming to fix things.