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The Broncos invested immensely in their special teams this offseason. But their value in the NFL is at an all-time low.

Henry Chisholm Avatar
August 11, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Justin Strnad remembers watching a video in a team meeting at the Denver Broncos’ facilities.

The ball floated across the screen, high above the NFL logo and down the field. The ball nearly reached the endzone, but dropped into Tyrone Drakeford’s hands just in front of the goal line. The second-year returner took a few steps forward before an orange blur flashed into the camera’s view from the left side of the screen. The blur collided with Drakeford, who hung horizontally in the air for an instant before being pounded into the 19-yard line. 

“OH!” the commentator yelled.

Terrell Davis high-stepped away from the site of the hit.

In the meeting, the coaches told the story that became lore in Broncos Country.

The Broncos were in Tokyo for a preseason exhibition against the San Francisco 49ers. Davis, a sixth-round rookie running back, was homesick and doubted his ability to make the team. He wanted to go home. He visited the concierge in the lobby of the team hotel, hoping to book a flight back to the United States.

But she only spoke Japanese. And Davis only spoke English. He decided to stay.

Davis earned a place in the NFL with his tackle.

He ran for 1,000 yards in his rookie season.

He made the Pro Bowl in his second season.

He won Super Bowl MVP in his third season.

He won NFL MVP in his fourth season.

He became a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

When he visited Broncos training camp last week, nearly 28 years to the day after the hit, he received a standing ovation.

He lived out the American Dream within America’s Game.

The message the coaching staff wanted to send to their team was loud and clear.

“I’ll give you the number; my first 30 years as a coordinator in the National Football League—not counting PATs and field goals—I averaged 22 plays a game. 22. Punts. Kickoffs. When I went to the Saints? Seven.”

Mike Westhoff sits on a bench outside the tunnel to the Broncos’ practice field, wearing a big pair of aviators. The Broncos’ offseason training program is winding down. He’s talking to the media for the first time since signing on as the Broncos’ assistant head coach in late February.

“The point is, the number of opportunities is reduced. I have to take every opportunity to see if we can’t make the best of it. That’s my goal. Do I have as many chances as I used to? No, I don’t. But so what? When I was with Sean (Payton), we did a lot of different things. You watch us. We do a lot. We do a lot of different things.”

Mike Westhoff at a New Orleans Saints training camp practice, when he was their special teams coordinator in 2018. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Westhoff is 75 years old, but he’s as energetic and determined as ever. He’s chock-full of big ideas. He began coaching football in 1974 and has 32 years of NFL stories. So many stories, he wrote a book during the four-year retirement that Sean Payton lured him out of this spring. He’s proud of the fact that he wrote every word of the 433 pages himself.

Payton called Westhoff “the best special teams coordinator of all-time.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Westhoff a “mad scientist.”

Broncos safety PJ Locke called Westhoff “batshit crazy.”

All three have strong cases.

“I love him, man,” Locke told DNVR. “He keeps me on my toes. We might not go over something in the meeting room, and he’s just testing my knowledge. We’ll come out here and run some stuff we’ve never ran before.”

Westhoff is a winner. He’s been a part of 16 playoff teams and only four losing seasons since 1989. His team has made the championship round in four of the last six years he coached. His special teams units consistently rank among the best in the league. He claims the job title “special teams coordinator” only exists because he created it.

In Denver, Westhoff is tasked with fixing a special teams unit that has struggled since Super Bowl 50. By Rick Gosselin’s rankings, the industry standard, the Broncos haven’t finished in the top half of the league in any of the past seven seasons. 

“I have a very high bar,” Westhoff said. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my retirement here so that I’m ranked freaking 23rd or some crap.” For what it’s worth, the Broncos were ranked 25th last year.

His goal is simple.

“Finish first in the league,” Westhoff said. “That’s it. That’s what I care about. I don’t want to have penalties. I don’t want to make mistakes. I want to make big plays.”

He doesn’t think the turnaround will take long.

“I only agreed to come for a year,” Westhoff said. “After a year, they’ll probably tell me to get the hell out.”

“The investment we’ve made in our special teams, both on the field and upstairs, is significant,” Sean Payton told reporters a few days into training camp.

Westhoff is at the top of the new hierarchy. He’s Denver’s assistant head coach, but his primary responsibility is looking after special teams.

Ben Kotwica, 48, is the special teams coordinator. He was an NFL special teams coordinator from 2013 to 2020. He took the 2021 season off and then returned to the league as the Vikings’ assistant special teams coordinator last season.

Westhoff and Kotwica worked together for six seasons with the Jets. In the three seasons Westhoff was special teams coordinator and Kotwica was his No. 2, they finished in the top 10 twice. 

Dec 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; then-New York Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

“Compared to last year, honestly, a lot is different,” veteran special teamer Justin Strnad said of the Broncos’ changes to his unit. “They require a certain standard of play and execution and if you don’t meet that standard then you’re probably not going to be here.”

By bumping Westhoff up to assistant head coach and Kotwica to full-on special teams coordinator, both receive promotions and probably corresponding raises. Thus, the “significant investment” in special teams.

But that investment has come at a time when special teams play a smaller role than ever before, thanks to more than a decade of changed rules.

In 2009, the league banned the “wedge block,” when three or four blockers joined together and worked like an offensive line. Only two-man wedges are still permitted, and they aren’t nearly as useful.

In 2010, the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, creating more touchbacks and reducing the number of returns.

In 2016, the NFL changed its rules so that a touchback gave the receiving team the ball at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line. Teams were incentivized to take a touchback even more often.

The league made another change this offseason when it voted to allow returners to fair catch the ball inside the field of play and give their offense the ball at the 25-yard line, just like a touchback.

“I’m not a big fan of it, to be honest,” Strnad said of the most recent change. “It takes away from teams wanting to work field position in the special teams kicking game.”

On page 425 of his book, Westhoff—arguably the NFL’s highest-ranking authority on special teams—shared his thoughts about their current state.

“As I have watched the current NFL game, I have been flooded with emotions. First, there was somewhat a sense of relief that I was not coaching the bullshit I was watching. Don’t get me wrong: I love and respect the NFL. However, the complete diluting of the kicking game saddens and sickens me.”

The NFL has a reason for the change, though: Kickoffs are the most dangerous plays in football. 

About 17% of concussions and about 30% of major knee injuries occur on special teams plays, despite special teams only accounting for about 12% of all plays, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. Broncos inside linebacker and defensive play-caller Josey Jewell tore his pectoral muscle on a kickoff in the second game of 2021 and didn’t return to the field until the next season.

For the past decade-and-a-half, the league has tried to reduce special teams injuries through rule changes. But there’s a side effect.

“You don’t have as many opportunities today as you did,” Westhoff said.

Teams are losing opportunities to gain advantages, and players are losing opportunities to earn jobs. 

PJ Locke’s NFL career almost ended before it began. He wasn’t chosen in the 2019 NFL Draft. The contract he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers shortly after it ended only included a minuscule $2,000 in guaranteed money. To earn any more, he’d have to make the 53-man roster.

Like most undrafted free agents, Locke didn’t make the roster. And he didn’t get a call from another team for four months.

But PJ Locke arrived in Denver in December 2019 as a member of the Broncos’ practice squad with a plan in mind.

Around 7:30 a.m., 90 minutes or so before practices began, Locke brought a question up to Tom McMahon’s second-floor office. 

Some days he asked about technique. Some days about positioning. But there was a catch…

“I knew the answer,” Locke told DNVR.

McMahon was the Broncos’ special teams coordinator at the time. He decided which 10 guys he trusted to run down the field and make a tackle on punts and kickoffs. He chose who blocked when it was the other team’s turn to kick. When the coaching staff selected the final few players to place on the roster, McMahon’s voice carried weight.

Locke’s goal was simple: prove to McMahon that he cared more about special teams than any other player on the Broncos’ roster. He was in McMahon’s office as often as possible, sometimes with questions he already knew the answers to. He sprinted through special teams walk-throughs. He did everything he could to stick out. In Locke’s mind, that was the path to a job in the NFL.

He was right. 

In 2020, Locke’s second NFL season, he played more special teams snaps than any other Bronco. 

In 2021, Locke held the crown again. 

In 2022, he finished second behind linebacker Justin Strnad. 

Four years after his release from the Steelers, Locke has beaten the average NFL lifespan of 3.3 years, and he’s turned the $2,000 signing bonus into $2.7 million in career earnings. 

In other words, his plan worked.

“Hey, I’m in Year 5,” Locke said. “Steady going.”

As time wound down in the first half of the Broncos’ game against the Cardinals last December, Locke lined up on the left side of the field to cover a punt. He faced bracket coverage, with a cornerback straight across from him and Chris Banjo coming from the inside to help.

Locke took an inside release, then jumped back outside, giving himself an angle downfield. Neither blocker caught up with him. He was only a step away when the returner caught the ball…

“I missed the damn tackle,” Locke said. “I forced it to the sideline, which is a plus. But for me, it’s a minus.”

Eight months later, a missed tackle that cost eight yards of field position and didn’t lead to points shouldn’t sting. But this one does.

The play came up in the film room this summer, and Banjo was right there watching with Locke. The 33-year-old is now the Broncos’ assistant special teams coach. Locke looked at him but knew he couldn’t claim the win without the tackle. It was his only missed special teams tackle of the season.

When Payton was rounding out his staff this spring, he says he looked through his old rosters to see if he had any former players who he could be interested in adding. He started with his first team in 2006 and worked his way forward. When he got to 2016, he saw Banjo’s name.

“I see Banjo, and I know that he just played since I covered one of their games for FOX,” Payton said. “I didn’t know if he was going to continue to play. Then I’m still wide awake, so I get my phone out to see if I have Banjo in the phone, and sure enough, I hit call. He answers.”

A few days later, Banjo interviewed for the job. Then he signed on, becoming the third and final piece of the Broncos’ special teams trio. He has tips and tricks that can help players on a play-to-play basis.

“Chris played last year,” Locke said. “He sees it eye-to-eye.”

Chris Banjo gets in the face of Los Angeles Chargers defensive back Ja’Sir Taylor last season. Credit: Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports

Kotwica is a veteran coach. He has plenty of special teams coordinating experience. He’s a born leader, an Army captain who piloted helicopters in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Korea and Iraq. He’s more than capable of running the day-to-day coaching and implementation. 

Westhoff is at the top of the totem pole. He handles some of the big picture planning. He’s one of the best ever to draw up return blocking schemes, overload blocks and fakes. With constantly changing rules, having his creativity to figure out how to exploit the changes could prove invaluable.

While some teams may see the value of special teams decreasing and decide to focus more on other aspects of football, the Broncos have taken the opposite approach. They’ve held nearly as many special teams periods as normal team periods so far in training camp.

“There’s still enough meat on the bone where it tilts,” Sean Payton said. “We just take an aggressive approach to all of that.”

If there are only seven special teams plays now—like Westhoff said there were in his last NFL stint—then the Broncos need to make big plays happen with fewer opportunities.

“You’ll have to see when we take the field, but we’ve definitely got some tricks up our sleeve this year,” Strnad said.

Nobody will give any details about the plays, of course, but we can make a couple of guesses.

For example, this offseason, the Broncos signed the punter with the best arm in the league.

“He has a really good leg, he’s smart, and he can throw it,” Payton said of Riley Dixon. “He played quarterback in high school. Knowing Westhoff, we’ll have a plethora of plays where we can utilize that, and I think it’s important.”

The Broncos have dropped plenty of heavy-handed hints that they’re willing to let Dixon use his arm. 

New York Giants guard Nick Gates can’t quite reel in a pass thrown by Riley Dixon in 2020.

“If you have a punter that can throw, you have to give thought to how you’re going to rush him, knowing that he’s talented enough and that we’re certainly going to be willing to do that,” Payton said.

Westhoff’s creativity will show through on kickoffs as well. The new fair catch rule limits how many kick returns you’ll see, but that just means that you need to force the returner’s hand.

“If you’re the kicking team and you’re not wanting it fair caught, then you have to keep it low and on the ground,” Payton said last week. “We’ll work those situations, especially if there’s a foul on a scoring play and you’re kicking off from the 50. If you just kick it into the air, they’re going to fair catch it and have it on the 25, and you won’t realize any of your penalty yards. I think you’ll see teams be a little bit more aggressive there. Then in the field, a lot of it will be stuff we look at in practice.”

There’s a fundamental shift in how the Broncos view special teams, which Westhoff sums up in one sentence:

“I want to present problems rather than react to problems.”

During Wednesday’s practice, the Broncos’ final practice before their first preseason game on Friday night, Justin Strnad took undrafted rookie outside linebacker Marcus Haynes to the side. They talked about what to expect from the preseason game, what going up against a different opponent will feel like, and how he should approach his opportunities.

“That’s everything for them… even a guy like myself,” Strnad said. “How you play on (special) teams is a big part of making the team.”

Locke and Strnad are more than willing to help young players learn the tricks of the trade. But once the game starts, it’s up to the rookies to prove they have what it takes.

Can Seth Benson, the big-hitting linebacker from Iowa, prove he’s got enough thump in the return game for the Broncos to take a flyer on him?

Will cornerback Art Green, the physical specimen who ran a sub 4.3-second 40-yard dash, use his physical tools to fly down the field in kick coverage and make a play?

Will JL Skinner, the massive sixth-round safety, make a hit that shoots him up from sixth place on the depth chart and into a roster spot?

Can Nate Adkins, the tight end from South Carolina who showed up above Albert Okwuegbunam on the Broncos’ first depth chart, forced a game-winning fumble on a punt against Clemson last season. Can he do it again?

The odds of the Broncos finding another Terrell Davis this preseason are slim, but finding another PJ Locke is possible. And another Locke would hold plenty of value.

Locke used special teams to buy himself time to develop as a safety and finally earned his first real defensive work in the NFL last season. He played 112 snaps, or about two full games worth of plays. At the end of the year, he was the Broncos’ second-highest graded defender by Pro Football Focus, and he forced the game-winning fumble against the 49ers.

He’s not done yet. 

“I see myself as a starting safety in this league at some point.”

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