Last season, many jokes were made on this site. . .and just about everywhere else. . .about the Minnesota Vikings' special teams, and with good reason. In 25 years of watching football, I can never, ever recall a Vikings special teams unit performing as horribly as the 2008 version did. Particularly egregious was the punt coverage unit, but as a whole the special teams were terrible in 2008, easily the worst in the NFL and, according to the good folks at Football Outsiders, the second-worst special teams unit of the DVOA era. Then, in the opener this year against Cleveland, the Beloved Purple gave up another punt return TD to Joshua Cribbs, and it looked like we might be in for more of the same.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rest of the season.
According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings now have the top-rated special teams unit in the National Football League. That would make them the first ever worst-to-first unit of any kind in the DVOA era, and they're on track to totally destroy the mark for biggest single-season special teams DVOA improvement set by the 1998 Seattle Seahawks.
When trying to figure out how the Vikings' special teams got so much better from last season to this one, the first and easiest answer is, "Percy Harvin, duh!" But when FO.com asked Kevin Seifert for a couple of other reasons, the ones he gave made a whole lot of sense.
New coordinator in Brian Murphy. He's put his own spin on the coverage and blocking schemes. They seem more sound.
They have several new special teams-only players, including Kenny Onatolu, who came from the CFL. He is always around the ball.
Their special teams captain of two years ago, Heath Farwell, has come back after missing 2008 because of an ACL.
The Farwell return has been huge, as we all knew it would be. But the drafting and free agent signings are very telling for this team as well. In the 2009 Draft, after the first couple of picks went to necessities (wide receiver with Harvin and offensive tackle with Phil Loadholt), the Vikings appeared to be drafting and signing players explicitly for special teams, specifically for young, fast guys that know how to tackle. That's how we get guys like Brinkley and Sanford, who have both been very good for us. We also get guys like Karl Paymah (who, for all his shortcomings as a CB, has been a good corner) and Onatolu, and we add them to already solid special teamers like Eric Frampton and Husain Abdullah. Young, fast, and athletic on special teams is always helpful. This keeps Brad Childress from having to play too many starters on special teams and keep them more focused on doing their "real" jobs as well.
A huge pat on the back has to go to Brian Murphy, who had the unenviable task of turning around one of the biggest special teams disasters ever and has done an outstanding job so far. Here's hoping that the Vikings can keep it up for another seven games. Or eight. Or nine. Or, ideally, ten.