It took one play for Dave Toub to know Tyreek Hill was special ... perhaps in a way that resembled dynamic return man Devin Hester, the rookie who helped vault the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006.
See, during the Chiefs’ predraft process, Toub – the special teams coach – watches tape of college players, too. Then, like the rest of the coaches, he writes up his notes and sends them up the chain of command.
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But when Toub saw Hill run away from Oklahoma on a punt return – a 92-yarder that keyed Oklahoma State’s comeback victory in 2014 – he was sold. Multiple Sooners had angles on Hill, and then, all of a sudden, they didn’t. It was the darndest thing he’d ever seen, and it wasn’t just because of Hill’s 4.24 40-yard speed, either.
“The unbelievable quickness, combined with the top-end freakin’ burst, man,” Toub explained. “I mean, he gets to full-speed so fast ... if the separation is there, then it’s over.”
So when the Chiefs selected Hill in the fifth round of this year’s draft, Toub – who met Hill personally and was confident the club’s scouts had fully vetted him – happily confided his excitement to a colleague.
“I said, ‘My draft’s over,’” Toub said with a laugh.
Several months later, the Chiefs are 10-3. And Toub’s special teams, keyed by Hill’s dynamism, is a big reason why.
Hill has returned a kick and a punt for a touchdown this season – the Chiefs are one of three teams, along with Miami and Minnesota, to earn that distinction – and while their kick-return unit ranks eighth (24.1 yards per return), their punt-return unit ranks first (14.8).
Throw in a pair of Hill punt return touchdowns that have been called back, and it’s easy to see why Toub nodded when asked if this year’s Chiefs mirror his dynamic Hester-led units, which topped Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News’ widely-embraced special teams rankings in 2006 and 2007.
“There are shades of ’06 and ‘07 because of the dynamic guy we’ve got back there,” Toub said. “It’s almost déjà vu in a lot of ways, the way teams try to attack us, like kicking the ball out of bounds. I went through the same thing in Chicago, and a lot of the same things that I’ve experienced there are happening here.”
The Chiefs, in general, have excelled on special teams this year, and it’s not just because of Hill. The kick-coverage unit ranks 28th but has not surrendered a touchdown, while the punt coverage unit ranks second. Toub’s successful fake punt against the Falcons a few weeks ago also proved to be a pivotal play in a season chock full of them on special teams.
For this, Toub says some credit should go to his core special teamers like Frank Zombo, Daniel Sorensen, Anthony Sherman and D.J. Alexander, all of whom have been in Kansas City for several seasons, providing the kind of stability that’s rare in the NFL.
For that, he credits coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey. Because while some teams pay lip service to the importance of special teams, all while making their coordinators essentially take what they can get as they craft rosters with the offense and defense in mind, special teams is given weight in the roster-molding process, both long term and week in, week out.
“We’ll keep guys now for that role,” Reid said. “The words aren’t just idle words. We try to make sure we look at that part aggressively.”
Add in Hill and two other rookies who bought in – safety Eric Murray and receiver Demarcus Robinson – and it’s added up to a special group and a special season for Toub’s units, one that explains why Reid occasionally mentions Toub as a future head-coaching candidate.
“With Dave, I’m partial — I think he’s the best in the business,” Reid said. “It’s year in and year out that he puts together a good product, and the guys believe in what he’s doing.”
It is uncommon for special teams coaches to get head coaching jobs in the NFL, but Baltimore’s John Harbaugh made his bones in the league as a special teams coordinator for Reid in Philadelphia, and he’s done well for himself as a head coach, winning the Super Bowl only four seasons ago.
“I think those guys are the closest to being a head coach just by having to deal with everybody, along with the media,” Reid said of special teams coaches. “They’re as ready as anybody to be a head coach in this league.
“Dave understands all the different positions, he’s going to play to your strength and try to work on getting you better at your weakness and kind of give you an opportunity to exploit that, to really show that off.”
Toub said he isn’t thinking about any of that right now. If he was, perhaps he would have shifted to a different coaching position like Harbaugh did in 2007, when he moved from special teams coordinator to defensive backs coach and was hired by Baltimore a year later.
While the 54-year-old Toub is ambitious — he said he does model himself after Harbaugh — he doesn’t think he has to switch roles to get a shot at a head coaching job.
“I don’t want to do that,” Toub said. “I love what I do, and I’m happy with what I’m doing ... it’s not the end if all of it doesn’t happen. I just like the fact people are starting to think about the idea.”
Besides, Toub has been a coach in this league long enough – 16 years – to know that if you lose focus on the present, even for a little bit, that’s when things tend to go awry.
“At any time, you can get a big play against (you) and all of a sudden, it’s like, what the hell happened,” he said. “You’re only one play away from being (bad). And if you ever start thinking the other way, you’re in trouble.”
And for the moment, the present is pretty good, and perhaps great, like those Bears teams of a decade ago … provided they all keep their eyes on the prize.
“It’s a carrot we talk about — we want to be the No. 1 special-teams unit in the league,” Toub said. “That’s something we talk about in that room.”