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O'HARA: Jim Arnold proud of Lions' special teams

Jim Arnold didn't have to reach back very far into his personal trove of memories and accomplishments to feel a sense of pride when he saw that the Detroit Lions' special teams were ranked second in the NFL for their overall performance in the 2016 season.

As a Pro Bowl punter and first-team All-Pro who was surrounded by special teams stars during his tenure with the Lions, Arnold was gratified by the recognition for a unit that often goes overlooked when things go well – and in the spotlight when they don't.

"Definitely, I was proud of it," said Arnold, who lives in Nashville but has had a close association with the franchise in recent years. "Obviously, I want the team to do well, and I want them (the special teams) to do well.

"To see how they did in the special teams rankings overall was very pleasing. It's something that can help win ballgames. It doesn't have to be ignored."

Arnold played 12 NFL seasons and was a Lion from 1986-93. He began his career with the Chiefs as a fifth-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt in 1983 and ended it with one season with the Dolphins in 1994 after parting ways with the Lions.

Arnold lives in Nashville but is part of a program started by the Lions' franchise that utilizes former Lions to assist and counsel players who are having trouble adjusting to retirement.

"As a former player, you may tend to open up to someone in your fraternity," Arnold said. "That's the ice-breaker."

The best seasons of Arnold's career were with the Lions. He made the Pro Bowl in 1987 and '88 and was first-team All-Pro in '87 with a gross average of 43.6 yards, a net of 39.6 – an historically high net figure at that point -- and no blocks.

For his last five seasons as a Lion – 1989-93 – Arnold was part of an all-star trio of specialists. Arnold had his two Pro Bowls.

Return specialist Mel Gray (a Lion from 1989-94), made four Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro three times.

And Arnold was the holder for two Pro Bowl kickers. First was Eddie Murray, who made two Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro once from 1980-91. Next was Jason Hanson, twice a Pro Bowler in 21 seasons as a Lion and fourth on the NFL's career scoring list with 2,150 points.

While Arnold has an appreciation of the entire special teams unit, he is most closely connected to the kickers and punters because it's his specialty.

The performances by punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater played a heavy role in the Lions' second-place finish in the special teams rankings. They have been compiled since 1990 by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and are considered league-wide as the standard for rating special teams.

Martin was third in the league among qualified punters in gross average (48.5 yards) and second in the all-important category of net average (44.2). Prater was seventh in field goals made (31) and 12th in percentage made (86.1).

Prater was one of the NFL's best clutch kickers last season, especially from long range. He made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. And Martin steadily has climbed the pecking order since being drafted in the fifth round in 2013.

"I don't know Matt as well as I know Sam," Arnold said. "I really like Sam. I think he's going to be a great punter for years to come."

The impact that special teams have on winning – and losing – games is evident in how the Patriots have performed since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000.

The Patriots have the best composite score during Belichick's tenure. They've had 17 winning seasons, 14 playoff appearances and five Super Bowl championships.

Martin is playing in what could be considered the golden era for punters, based on stats – particularly net punting.

The NFL first recognized net average as an official stat in 1976, but it wasn't until 2007 that the 40-yard average mark was broken. Shane Lechler had a 41.1-yard net for the Raiders. Lee had a 41.0 net for the 49ers. Both were still active in 2016 – Lecher for the Rams, Lee for part of the season with the Browns.

The 40-yard net level reached double figures for the first time in 2012 when 15 punters hit it. It has not been below double figures since, with an all-time high of 17 in 2016.

Arnold came close once. He finished with a net of 39.63 yards in 1987 and was at 39.98 going into the last game at Atlanta. His only two punts were from midfield for field positions, and he averaged a gross of 35 yards with six yards of returns.

Arnold's net of 39.63 yards is believed to the best until Lechler and Lee broke the 40-yard mark in 2007.

Arnold was heartened to see Ray Guy inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a punter in 2014. Morten Andersen's election this year made him the second pure kicker, joining Jan Stenerud, who was inducted in 1991.

"I remember what Guy said when he got in," Arnold said. "He said, 'Now we have a complete team.' It was good to see Morten go in. Those are positions that need to be recognized."

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