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A Special Turnaround: How Chargers Rejuvenated Their Special Teams Unit

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When Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken arrived in February 2022, the mission was clear and simple: help turn around a unit that had struggled in recent years.

The Bolts were coming off a 2021 season where they were ranked 28th in the special teams DVOA (-2.4 percent), and had been 32nd overall (-11.8 percent) in 2020.

There was a lot of work to be done to improve the group, but Ficken, Chargers assistant special teams coach Chris Gould and the Bolts roster have done just that, as the unit is arguably one of the best in the NFL.

The turnaround came quick, as the Chargers finished sixth in special teams DVOA in 2022.

The Bolts have been even better this year, as they enter Week 16 ranked second in special teams DVOA with 3.7 percent.

The turnaround has made a difference in the last two Chargers seasons, something that Ficken emphasized to his special teams unit in his very first message to the group.

"The biggest thing was just that we set a foundation to improve the unit and make sure that we're making a positive impact on our team," Ficken said. "To make sure we can help our team win football games.

"I ended up showing a presentation about the different situations and how we can impact the game, from explosive returns to turnovers, playing penalty-free football to not allowing our opponents to have explosive returns, all those kinds of messages," Ficken continued.

"That was all going to be a part of our message and the foundation we were trying to create," Ficken added. "Mainly just with the simplistic approach on everything and how we do things."

And the message was well-received among the players, as there began a mindset that has changed the unit to be what it's been for the last two seasons.

"Our goal was to be like, 'We're done being a liability. We're going to be a unit that can contribute, is productive, strong in all four phases and we want it to be really important to our team'," linebacker Nick Niemann, who leads the Bolts in special teams snaps this season, said. "And that's just been the emphasis and we've just kind of rode with that."

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Establishing a culture was one of the first things on Ficken and the staff's minds, and a big step in the right direction in that department included bringing in some players that have continued to make an impact week in and week out.

The Chargers were able to sign free agent punter JK Scott, someone Ficken had seen a lot of from his time in Minnesota.

Scott put together an impressive first year with the team in 2022, winning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 12 and finishing the year with a career-best 38.4 percent of his punts being downed inside the 20-yard line. He was also a major part of the Chargers punt unit that led the NFL with just 3.1 yards per punt return.

And just like the unit as a whole, Scott has one upped himself this season, placing 40.4 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. This included a dominant performance in Week 13 where he registered a career-high and single-game franchise-record seven punts inside the 20, the most by any player in a single NFL game since 2019.

Scott's addition has paid dividends in a huge way, as the addition of veteran long snapper Josh Harris.

Harris has been a key figure to the unit, especially in the kicking game that made 93.3 percent of their kicks in 2022 between three different kickers due to injury. And it's led to kicker Cameron Dicker taking it up a notch, making 19 of 20 field goals (four from 50-plus) and being perfect on extra points.

Being able to add Harris as a free agent in the 2022 offseason allowed Ficken to be able to see the vision forward, as his steadiness as a leader is something that makes a difference every day.

"I told [Harris], 'If we bring you here, I want you to be a leader for us, I want to cultivate leadership amongst the group. I don't want it to just come from me, I want it to come from the players, because it is a players' team," Ficken said. "It is their special teams unit and we got to make sure there's ownership on that.

"He's the main guy that we had to start with in terms of getting that message and that voice across throughout the group," Ficken added.

"Teaming up with him, because he's elite at what he does, was the first step," Ficken continued. "It all starts with him as the snapper. He's a leader for the rest of the core guys. That piece was integral for us and our success and continues to be."

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Almost every special teams play starts with Harris, but the impact he's been able to have with the Chargers stretches far past his play on the field for both the younger players in the group as well as those who have been around.

"Words can't describe how valuable he is, specifically for our unit and just being a guy," Scott said about Harris. "He's so consistent, and he's always got such a great attitude and perspective on things. Guys really in the room really look up to him.

"For me personally, he's helped me so much," Scott added. "He makes everything lighter."

Harris and Scott have played a big role in the leadership aspect of the unit, as have many other of the core members — and it was one of the things that was big for him when trying to build out the special teams unit.

It's one thing to have leadership from the coaches, but Ficken believes that having players lead is one of the major parts of a successful unit.

"I think when we first got here there wasn't much [special teams] leadership within the players, they were trying to figure out," Ficken said. "But I think we have a really good core group of leaders, those guys have really taken on leadership too where they're bringing along guys too and saying, 'This is how we do it here'. And I think it's very important."

Scott added: "I think for him to do that is a real wisdom because when you have the team and the guys on the team leading and stepping up, it's the most powerful thing. The guys that are playing with you are the ones that are leading. There's just something special about that and I think 'Fick' recognizes that and he's done a really good job of facilitating that and encouraging that and guys have stepped up to the plate."


The leadership has shown up in a big way, especially this season with injuries to major contributors like Tanner Muse, Raheem Layne, Chris Rumph II, all of whom have all landed on Injured Reserve.

And that doesn't include key special teamers like Amen Ogbongbemiga, Daiyan Henley, Ja'Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard that have missed at least a game this season.

But with the culture in place and making sure everybody is engaged week-in and week-out, the transition to play gets that much smoother.

 "I think we've done a really good job of when we do have new guys that step in to play, we all rally around them, make sure we're on the same page," Harris said. "We all know that no matter who's in there, the standard doesn't change."

Niemann added: "It's really the same as offense or defense, next man in. Ficken does a great job making sure that guys are engaged in meetings, that they know their assignments. Maybe guys that aren't out there right away, he's going to put them on the look teams and put them in the spots that they would be in if they were in the game so that they can get reps at that. He just does a good job making sure everyone is engaged."

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The group has a lot of pride in the success they've had up to this point, but Ficken has echoed the same message since the first day — past success does not matter for future outcomes.

It's something Chargers special teams unit continues to understand and move forward with, as the group strives to improve and be a factor day in and day out.

"2021 has no impact on what our success is today," Ficken said. "2022, even though we had some success last year, we can use it as a foundation to build off on. Just like if we have success this week, doesn't mean it's going to mean we're going to have success next week.

"What I tell them is the biggest thing is the more success you're going to have, teams are going to come after you and try to give you your best shot just like how we approach each game giving our opponents their best shot," Ficken continued. "It goes not just by game or by season, but it's also by play. We learn from it, the good and the bad, and how can we go ahead and improve it and build off it."

"I think we got a great group, competitors from the veterans to the rookies, and they want to be better," Ficken later added. "They want to have a sense of pride in terms of the product they put on the field. That's what makes it so exciting to coach these guys, because it is very important to them. This group is different, and I think they're special in that way."

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