O'Hara's Monday Countdown: Can John Bonamego give the Detroit Lions special teams a boost?

Posted Jan 21, 2013

John Bonamego, the Detroit Lions' presumptive new special teams coordinator, has a solid track record and strong endorsements from national media members who have a keen eye for coaches and player personnel matters

Taking a cue from our country's political traditions this weekend, any comments about the impending shift in leadership of the Detroit Lions' special teams should be couched with a bit of caution until what is expected becomes official.

John Bonamego, the Lions' presumptive new special teams coordinator, has a solid track record and strong endorsements from national media members who have a keen eye for coaches and player personnel matters.

Bonamego is expected to be formally introduced by the Lions on Monday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile.  Coach Jim Schwartz and his staff are coaching the South team.

Reports surfaced last week that Bonamego had been tabbed to replace Danny Crossman, who was let out of the final year of his contract with the Lions to move to Buffalo as the Bills' special teams coordinator.

This week's Monday Countdown focuses on the Lions' special teams - endorsements for Bonamego, his background, what went wrong in 2012, and what has to go right in 2013.

We start with endorsements (independent, nonpartisan, but nobody put one hand on the bible, either):

1. Endorsements: Inquiries I made to two national media members about the change in coordinators in Detroit drew the following responses:

"A definite upgrade. Give him players, and make a commitment to special teams, and he'll do well."

"Like it. High energy. Big time. Knowledgeable. Committed. Sharp. Now if they get rid of (Stefan) Logan, their special teams have a chance."

2. Background check: Bonamego, 49, played wide receiver and quarterback at Central Michigan. According to his bio on the Jacksonville Jaguars website, he began his coaching career in 1987 at Mt. Pleasant High School.

He also was a college assistant, with six seasons (1993-98) at Army before jumping to the NFL in 1999 with his first tour at Jacksonville as assistant special teams coach for three seasons.

He has had two one-year stints as special teams coordinator at Jacksonville - 2002 and 2012 - and was special teams coordinator of the Packers (2003-05), Saints (2006-07) and Dolphins (2008-11), and also assistant special teams coordinator of the Saints in 2011.

Based on his work record, he must have made a strong impression in Jacksonville and New Orleans, because he was re-hired in both places.

3. La Dolce Vita: According to his Jaguars bio, Bonamego coached the Verona Redskins in Italy in 1987.

There is no evidence that Bonamego is a character in John Grisham's novel "Playing for Pizza," about a fictional NFL quarterback who prolongs his career by playing one season in Italy.

File this item under useless, but interesting, information, but I'm willing to take an assignment to Italy to research the Verona Redskins.

4. The rankings: Rick Gosselin, a columnist and former NFL writer for the Dallas Morning News, each year compiles and publishes the special teams rankings for all 32 NFL teams.

It is a thorough ranking, based on 22 kicking-game categories, and is regarded as the standard for evaluating a team's performance on special teams over a full season.

At every NFL stop, Bonamego's units consistently were ranked in the top half of the league.

In a 10-season period - 2002-2011 - his units were ranked in the top 10 six times. He had a high of third with Jacksonville in 2002, eighth and ninth with the Packers the next two seasons, and 10th twice with the Saints ('06) and Dolphins ('09).

He also had a couple down years - 32nd in '05, his last season with the Packers, and 30th in '08, his first season in Miami. Significantly, the Dolphins moved up 20 spots the next season to 10th place.

In 2011, when Bonamego was back with the Saints as special teams coordinator, the Saints were eighth. They were 18th in 2010, when Bonamego was in Miami.

The 2012 rankings are not out yet.

5. Lions history: Over the years, the Detroit Lions have had standout, Pro Bowl performers at the most visible positions - kickers and return men.

Most obvious is the amazing chain of quality kickers - a chain that has only two sparkling links over 33 seasons - Ed Murray from 1980-91, and Jason Hanson from 1992 through the present.

From 1992 through 2005, there were six Pro Bowl appearances by Lions return specialists - four times by Mel Gray, and one each by Desmond Howard and Eddie Drummond.

And this year, long snapper Don Muhlbach was added to the NFC Pro Bowl team by Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

Two special teams coordinators, the late Frank Gansz (1989-93) and Chuck Priefer (1997-2006), were regarded by their peers as among the elite at the position.

6. Lions recently: Under Stan Kwan, an assistant to Priefer, they ranked 25th and 15th in 2009-'10 and 31st in 2011 in Crossman's first season in Detroit.

7. Lions/Logan in 2012: They're sure to be near the bottom when the rankings come out, largely because of a two-game nightmare early in the season and an unproductive season by Logan.

In consecutive losses to the Titans in Game 3 and the Vikings in Game 4, the Lions gave up TDs on kickoff and punt returns in both games.

Stefan LoganLogan had a profound dropoff, from a big season in 2010 to negligible positive impact in 2012.

He declined from a 12.1-yard average on punt returns in 2010 and 26.3 on kickoffs to 9.1 and 21.3 respectively in 2012. He also had six fumbles in 2011 and six in 2012.

Most infamously on his part was surrendering on a free kick in a loss to Atlanta in Game 15.

Logan was taken off all returns in the final game against the Bears.

Joique Bell replaced Logan on kickoffs and promptly fumbled the ball away, giving the Bears an easy field goal.

8. 2013: Everything usually looks good on paper when it comes to coaching changes, and Bonamego is a good hire.

It's unfortunate if Crossman is cast as the culprit for the Lions' poor play on special teams. They performed considerably better after the wave of touchdowns against the Vikings and Titans. That cost the Lions two games, and there was no way to make up for it.

Bad decisions and bad plays by Logan aren't the fault of any coach.

Personnel issues have to be solved on special teams.

Last season, either Titus Young or Ryan Broyles could have taken over on punt returns, but Young got in the doghouse because of his behavior, and Broyles got hurt. Neither one can be counted on at the start of next season - if at all.

Ronnell Lewis was drafted in the fourth round to be a banger on special teams. That never materialized.

Schemes are important, but they don't work without players - even for the Verona Redskins.