There are many special teams coaches in the NFL, but few with the resume, the panache or the candor as the New York Jets' Mike Westhoff. Westhoff has been doing his job for 30 years, and he's not just one of the top special teams coaches in today's game; he's one of the top special teams assistants ever.
Westhoff, who recently was hospitalized 11 days to repair a broken titanium prosthesis in his leg, will retire after this season, and when he goes he takes a trove of knowledge, experience and opinions with him. So rather than wait for him to retire, I thought I'd check in with him now to ask him his thoughts on the NFL, where it's been and where it's going.
Here's what he had to say:
Q: What, in your career in the NFL, has been the most significant change in the game?
Westhoff: The most significant changes have occurred with liberalizing the offense's ability to move and score. It becomes evident that everyone except defensive coordinators likes the 35-32 game. College football has become a wide-open spread offense game, and people like Jon Gruden are professing that this will become the future of the NFL. Some of the rules have leant themselves to let that happen a little bit, but the emphasis on a concern with injuries has taken away a lot of the hits. You can make an argument that Lawrence Taylor would not be Lawrence Taylor today because you just don't see the hits on quarterbacks like that. Now, in the kicking game there has been a real metamorphosis from where you hoped you wouldn't mess up to where it's become relatively dynamic and the difference between winning and losing. I feel very proud that I was very much a part of that, and I feel I was as much a part of that as anyone in the league. All of a sudden, returns became this gigantic weapon that could win the game ... or lose the game. I saw special teams evolve where it went from just getting somebody to coach them to a coordinator who deserved an equal coordinator's salary because he could make a difference in the game. I have a picture in my home -- it's a TV picture actually, where I froze the television and made a copy of it -- and we're playing Buffalo up there on opening day. We run a kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter, then block a punt, have a big punt return and our coverage is incredible. The game's tied and goes into overtime, and we win the toss. So we take the ball, they kick off to us, and we run it for a touchdown. I think it was the best special teams game played in NFL history.
Q: Are special teams finally appreciated for what they are -- difference makers?
Westhoff: I would say, yes, it is very much appreciated. People do know it makes a difference. The ironic part is that they have no clue as to why. And to be honest with you, neither do many of the announcers. I can show you one of our kickoff returns, and, if we do it right, it will look like the best designed running play that was ever designed because it takes on all the components of a running play -- like a double team, a trap, a set, a wall, a wedge, a lead, a seal and so forth. It's not recess. Even though it's appreciated, it's not appreciated for what really took place. The explanation and the science of explaining the game on TV has become incredible. But explaining special teams? They don't know anything.
Q: John Harbaugh was a long-time special teams coach, and Baltimore took a leap when it made him a head coach. Yet all the guy's done is make the playoffs in all four of his years there, including two conference championship games. Why, then, aren't more special teams coaches considered head coaching candidates?
Westhoff: Because the media picks the candidates, and they believe the offensive and defensive coordinators are the reason for success. What they really don't know is that some of those guys have no clue how to run a game. Clock management? They have no clue. Personnel makeup? They have no idea how to pick an active 45 during the week. But it's designed by the media, and, once that starts, the owners fall into line because of pressure from the fan base to sell tickets. So, all of a sudden, someone like Steve Spagnuolo is the greatest coach there will be. Well, guess what? John Harbaugh has been to the playoffs every single year.
Q: Is there anyone less appreciated in pro football than the punter?
Westhoff: Possibly the long snapper. He really has the pressure because guys are smacking him in the face. The thing you have to be careful about with the punter and where the media has no clue is: Was it because of or in spite of? Sometimes, people will say, "Oh, he had a great day punting," and he could line drive the ball right down the middle of the field.
Q: Can you foresee the day when there are no kickoffs in the NFL?
Westhoff: This drives me crazy. We sent out a memo to all special teams coaches, talking about what [New York Giants co-owner] John Mara said, which is that maybe the play should be gone. And we said, "OK, here's where we are: Anytime there's a non-play you're going to have a non-coach. If you're going to let this job dissipate don't be prepared to fight back." So what I'm going to do is come up with some kind of alternative proposals in case this train runs goes rumbling down the track, and I came up with one with a whole set of rules, then asked for suggestions from all the coaches. We canvassed all of them and took it in to the NFL office and presented it to them, just so the competition committee would have something in front of them in case if this kind of thing would be proposed. I would say, no, I don't foresee the end of kickoffs, but the pressure is so intense on the commissioner with this concussion stuff that they're scared to death. So what are they going to do? Tell the quarterback not to throw the middle to the middle of the field? Of course not. So I did come up with something.
Q: Like what?
Westhoff: Well, what they're worried about is the big collision caused by lengthy runs. So my thought was to take a little from a kickoff and turn it into a punt return. I would kick off from the 25-yard line, with the kickoff coverage team aligned so it's 5 and 5 (to each side of the kicker) within one yard of the ball. That way, they get no run. I still have a 10-yard restraining area, so you can have an onside kick, with a minimum of five guys lined up 11 yards from the ball. You can have six or seven, but you have to have at least five. And within the 10 yards beyond that, you have to have eight. So you play three deep, and from there, you play ball. Basically, I want the play. I want to give the returner a chance to get the ball. If you kick off from the 25 the average ball will come down at the 5, and it will more closely resemble a punt return. "
Q: There is only one special teams performer in the Hall of Fame, and that's Jan Stenerud. Why aren’t there more?
Westhoff: It's a matter of education. It's not that people don't appreciate it; it's that they just don't know why it's such a skill. To me, a Ray Guy would have an opportunity. I'm a big believer in Steve Tasker, too. He was as much a contributor to those great Buffalo teams as anyone. In fact, I watched them play the Raiders one day, and though they won the Raiders beat the hell out of them. I don't care what Bruce Smith did, and I don't care what Jim Kelly did. The only reason they won that game was because of what Steve Tasker did. I'd put him in.
Q: OK, so I put you on the Hall's next board of electors. Who's the first special teams performer you vote in?
Westhoff: Ray Guy, because he changed the science of punting. He didn't alter field position. He reversed field position. He would be the guy I would fight for.
Q: If you had one kicker and one punter to choose for your next team -- from any era -- who would it be?
Westhoff: I'm going to go with guys I've had just because I'm so close to them. I would take Olindo Mare with me anytime. We broke an NFL record for number of field goals, his kickoffs were out of sight and his onside kick ... well, it was Olindo Mare who revolutionized the onside kick. He would come up full speed as if he was going to kick off, then ... bam! ... would hit it into the ground so that it would go up high. We got three of them in one game against the New England Patriots. [Bill] Parcells came out one time and said, "They'll never get one against us," and we did. The punter is a tough call, but I'm going to stick with Reggie Roby. He could hit the ball out of sight. Reggie would stand in the dome in New Orleans on Saturday and hit a million balls until he hit the scoreboard. He's what you call a "pendulum punter," where the left foot was perfectly flat and his leg would come up so that his knee was above his head. It was a phenomenal thing. He used to have contests with me where I'd set a JUGS machine, and he would say, "You can set it as high as you want. I'll outkick it." And he would. In fact, he had a 5.7 hang time one time when I was coaching him.
Q: If you were commissioner for a day what rule change would you make?
Westhoff: I would change the activation and go from 45 being active with an extra quarterback to 48 being active with an extra quarterback. And I would do it immediately. I would not increase the roster size, so owners wouldn't have to pay for more players. But what is happening today is that the game is so specialized that there's a premium on particular players, and when a guy gets banged up there's no place to look for a substitute. I would hope by adding three or for more guys it would make a difference. Plus, with this new concussion rule if a guy is even suspected of having a concussion, doctors have a procedure to go through that, with absolute maximum efficiency, takes nine minutes. So I'm the special teams coach, and I'm standing there waiting for a guy for nine minutes, and we've got to punt. Who the heck are you going to put out there? Mark Sanchez?
Q: Given what the NFL is going through now with rules to protect players what do you think the game looks like in 10 years?
Westhoff: The guys will be bigger, faster, stronger, so the collisions will be greater -- which means we have to be smart and diligent. And we have to teach things the right way. I believe we'll still have the same game -- it will be just as crisp and just as tough -- but I am concerned that certain rules could take some of this aggressiveness away. I'm very much in favor of player safety, but I also say, "Fine, ours is a very physical game, and it's not soccer, and it's not rugby." So it's a fine line we walk. We have to respect one another. I mean, the "bounty" thing was a joke. Those words never came out of my mouth in 30 years of meetings ... and I will put up my physical play as a coach in 30 years with anybody. But the word, "bounty" will never come out of my mouth. To actually pay someone to hurt someone? It's a disgrace. I'm totally with the commissioner with what he did. We'll try to knock the heck out of you, but I'm not going to say, "We’re going to try to hurt this guy." C'mon, that's not what our business is about. So we have to be smart. I believe the game will stay the same and will stay aggressive. But I do have concerns.
Q: Gratuitous question of the day: If there's anyone who can make the most of Tim Tebow's talents it's you. I know he's going to play special teams, but how will you use him?
Westhoff: I have so many things I'm trying I don't have time to recall them all. I'm going to use him everywhere. When he was sitting in with me on this punt stuff, an assistant said to him, "You know, you're going to have to run down and make a tackle," and [Tebow] gave him a look that just froze him -- something like: "You don't think I'm going to run down there and make a tackle?" I started laughing and thought, "You just learned a good lesson there, young man."
Love the answer about increasing the number of active players to 48. It really makes no sense that the team has to inactivate 8 players, with the game as physical as it is today. Put these players on the sidelines, let them play ST's, it will help with player safety, because starters on offense and defense won't have to play as much ST's. Less wear on those starters, more distribution of reps, it just makes way too much sense not to bump it up.
Thanks for posting this..I love listening/reading Westhoff interviews. He's so knowledgeable and insightful. I know a few JI'ers have posted that they have met him in various social settings and he's always been very gracious in meeting/speaking with them. I hope he reconsiders and stays in coaching another couple of years (as long as his health permits)..I'll miss him