He's master of avoiding disaster

For Ravens' Purnell, special teams duties can be hair-raising

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens vs. Giants

January 20, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The men who run special teams are to coaches what offensive linemen are to players.

They only get face time when something goes wrong.

"Every play on special teams is a disaster waiting to happen," said Russ Purnell, the Ravens' special teams coach. "You can have a bad snap, somebody can drop a football, a guy can miss a block, there's the risk of miscommunication. It seems like every week you've got to put your finger in another hole in the dike. You fix one, then move over and plug another."

Purnell knows well the kaleidoscope of emotions that accompany his job.

Fingers were pointed at Purnell when Kyle Richardson had consecutive punts blocked in the AFC divisional playoff game at Tennessee. When Anthony Mitchell broke that game open with a 90-yard return of a blocked field goal and kept Baltimore on the road to Super Bowl XXXV, Purnell didn't garner quite as much attention.

The Ravens' special teams didn't deliver any outsized heroics in the AFC championship game win at Oakland, just one steady play after another that kept the Raiders in a field position hole. It was just another day at the office for a unit that excelled in the season opener at Pittsburgh, began the move to elite level at midseason, and was the difference Dec. 24 against the Jets, when Jermaine Lewis brought back two punts for touchdowns.

Contrast that regular-season finale to the end of the 1999 campaign, when the kickoff coverage was horrendous at New England. After a galling 49-yard return by the Patriots that wasted whatever early momentum the Ravens had, coach Brian Billick didn't conceal his displeasure with Purnell.

"That's part of my job, which is to get them to play well," Purnell said. "If they don't, the head coach has a right to yell and holler if he wants to.

"I'm a fan, too, and when I can, I watch the Sunday and Monday night [NFL] games. When something bad happens, they [TV] usually show the special teams coach. When the quarterback gets sacked, they don't show the offensive line coach. If the quarterback throws an interception, they don't show the offensive coordinator or quarterback coach."

Despite his unit's spotty play in 1999, Purnell did not agree with the speculation that he might be cut loose after his first season with the Ravens.

"I read that stuff," Purnell said. "I didn't like to read it, and there was not too much I could do about it. Brian never sat me down and said, `if we don't get this fixed, you're going to be looking for a new job.' He never directly threatened me."

Purnell, a 52-year-old who began his NFL coaching career with Seattle in 1986, simply went back to work. His raw material improved, as the Ravens' defensive depth has manifested itself in improved coverage of punts and kickoffs. Retirement took 10-year veteran Bennie Thompson, but the renowned special teams became Purnell's assistant.

"Bennie is irreplaceable as a player," Purnell said. "He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Every special teams coach would game plan around him. Now we're fortunate to have him helping out."

Purnell's "disaster" comment aside, it's not as if he's overseen as many calamities as Irwin Allen in 1970s Hollywood.

Richardson set an NFL record for punts downed inside the 20 last season, and went this regular season without a block. Lewis brought back punts for 54- and 89-yard touchdowns in that Jets game to boost his punt-return average to 16.1 yards, an NFL record for a player with 30 returns in a season. Kicker Matt Stover was the Ravens' offense in October, and completed his ascension to All-Pro status.

"As a special teams coach, your biggest reward is when your individual players do well," Stover said. "I think what it came down to was the players' attitude more than Russ. I think once the players began to develop a better attitude on special teams, coverage units, blocking units, you had the attitude of a champion. Midway through the season, we developed that attitude more and more."

The Raiders had a reputation as one of the AFC's best in special teams, but after an early hiccup by Stover on a 35-yard field-goal attempt that hit an upright, Purnell's units dominated. Lewis had a punt return of 38 yards, and after Oakland's only score, he took the kickoff out to the Ravens' 38. More of the same will be needed next Sunday in Tampa.

"We talk about this game being evenly matched," Billick said, "and special teams is going to be a big, big part of it."

Purnell will be there, plugging holes and confident that the CBS cameras will find Lewis and Stover smiling instead of him.

Game data

Ravens (15-4)

vs. N.Y. Giants (14-4)

When: Jan. 28, 6:18 p.m.

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

Fast fact: The team with the older starting QB has won 21 of the 34 Super Bowls. The Ravens' Trent Dilfer (3/13/72) is nine months older than the Giants' Kerry Collins (12/30/72).

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