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Conference title games provide Bears another reminder of special teams’ vital importance

January 22, 2019

The four conference-championship participants went a combined 21-of-21 on field-goal and point-after tries Sunday. Among them: Greg Zuerlein banging home a 48-yarder to force overtime and a 57-yard walk-off to send the Rams to the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker connecting from 39 out in the closing seconds of regulation at frigid Arrowhead, where he’s never missed inside of 40 but also had never attempted a field goal in those pressure-packed conditions.

We already knew the Bears would put a major emphasis on improving their kicking game in the offseason, but Sunday offered a stark reminder of the vital nature of special teams to true contenders. Lest we forget, Chicago might have knocked off both conference champions during the regular season, if not for gifting the Patriots 14 points in the kicking game in a 38-31 defeat in Week 7.

It won’t be the Bears’ singular offseason focus, but reinforcing their special teams should be their top priority, helping ensure there are no more “what ifs” in 2019. Kicker Cody Parkey’s “TODAY Show” appearance sealed his own Bears fate, and P Pat O’Donnell is hardly a shoo-in to return, with his contract set to expire and his solid 2018 campaign ending on a down note.

So what can we glean from the third-phase makeup of the final two Super Bowl LIII challengers and apply toward the Bears? The Rams pulled off the rare hat trick of All-Pro special teamers two seasons ago and followed it up with about as clutch of a performance as one can imagine to punch their ticket to Atlanta.

In addition to Zuerlein’s incredible conversions under pressure, Rams special-teams coordinator John Fassel called a huge fake punt from P Johnny Hekker to CB Sam Shields with his team trailing 13-0 early. Hekker, as he so often does, delivered — both as a passer and punter Sunday. To wit: the Rams rank No. 4 in the NFL in cap dollars allocated to their kicking game this season, only three spots ahead of the Bears but two behind the Patriots.

And, save for Julian Edelman’s momentary brain lapse in attempting to field a punt that appeared to graze his thumb before being recovered by the Chiefs — replay overturned the call — New England was otherwise terrific on special teams Sunday.

Stephen Gostkowski hit a 47-yarder late in the third quarter to give the Patriots a two-score lead. Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Patriots acquired via trade from — wait for it — Jon Gruden’s Raiders, returned Kansas City’s final kickoff in regulation 38 yards to set up their go-ahead touchdown. Ryan Allen pinned both of his punts inside the 20, allowing game-breaking Tyreek Hill to attempt only one return, for minus-11 yards.

Of course, neither of these team’s success should come as a surprise. Fassel is among the game’s most respected special-teams coordinators, and Bill Belichick’s kicking-game assessments at local news conferences are the stuff of legend. And of course no franchise has more Super Bowl-winning kicks in its history than the Patriots.

The Bears spent a lot on their special teams this past season but it was largely allocated for the league’s most disappointing kicker. We’ll have lots of fun stuff here throughout the offseason on the inexact science of evaluating kickers.

But at least one thing Zuerlein and Gostkowski have in common is that they’re both home-grown draft picks, unlike Parkey, Connor Barth and, yes, technically Robbie Gould. That might be the place for the Bears to start, even without the benefit of a full stockpile of selections.

Ryan Pace established himself this past season as one of the game’s more impressive young general managers, but the biggest thorn in his side has been the PK position, a revolving door of ineptitude since Gould’s unceremonious departure. Pace waited until Year 3 to draft a quarterback, a move that started paying dividends last season. He can’t afford to wait any longer to draft his first kicker, and it says here that should be one of the Bears’ several major points of emphasis to improve their special teams this offseason.

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