Special teams in focus as Teams Talk builds momentum during pandemic

When the ball drops on New Year Eve, millions of people all over the world will begin their annual quest for self-improvement but for many football coaches, those resolutions won’t look much different from how they’ve spent 2020. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on sports and forcing cancellations all over the world, coaches have had plenty of time on their hands and a rising number of online clinics and courses have helped fill the void. Coaching clinics have always been a part of the regular offseason schedule but this year made them internationally accessible and if you’re a coach, chances are you’ve taken advantage on at least one occasion, soaking up knowledge from someone sitting in their office thousands of miles away.

Coach Garrett McLaughlin is no stranger to this type of offseason education. Working at the academically minded Bates College, McLaughlin found himself with even more time for self-improvement without the typical obligation of spring football but there was something missing from the products on offer.

“If you search on Twitter or on Google, you can find some great resources for offensive line play or defensive line play, playcalling on offence or defence, but there wasn’t really anything out there for special teams,” he recalls.

As a special teams coordinator, that presented a problem but McLaughlin thought he could make  his own solution. In 2018, he launched his own Twitter account, Teams Talk, as a place to share and discuss the intricacies of special teams play. Other coaches hungry for special teams knowledge took notice and the platform quickly grew a following.

“When I started with the Twitter account, I didn’t really have a plan for it,” McLaughlin laughs. “I certainly didn’t think it was going to get to this point.”

The pandemic, like in so many other areas, changed everything. With plenty of time on his hands, McLaughlin was able to invest in his platform and hungry coaches from all levels lapped up the increase in content. It wasn’t long before McLaughlin was connecting with a kindred spirit whose knowledge even exceeded his own: 40 year coaching veteran and long-time CFL special teams guru Jeff Reinebold.

McLaughlin is more than a little impressed with Reinebold’s vast knowledge of special teams:

“He’s unbelievable in terms of his knowledge and his experience. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him and when both our seasons got canceled, it allowed us to partner up and do something here to get more special teams knowledge out there and pick up a little bit of loose change in the process.”

The resulting joint project, Teams Talk Special Teams Certification, is the first of its kind, an online course that provides subscribers with what McLaughlin calls a “holistic approach to special teams”. The course, divided into six in-depth modules, breaks down the Xs and Os of every aspect of the game’s third phase through videos prepared by McLaughlin and Reinebold. The dozens of hours of exclusive educational content are supplemented by tests at the end of each module and a final exam, allowing participants to prove their learning. At the end of it all, those who complete the course receive official certification from the program, proof that they have all the knowledge necessary to be a special teams coordinator.

“We wanted it to be structured so that if this was your first year running a special teams unit, you could get this course and get a good idea of not only the broad strokes but also the details of how to coach an effective and possibly dynamic special teams unit,” McLaughlin explains.

That’s a skill set that many football coaches simply don’t possess, with most special teams coordinator falling into the role or having it tacked on in addition to other responsibilities. McLaughlin knows the story well. An unsuccessful walk-on at Syracuse University, he worked his way from the equipment room onto the coaching staff, discovering a passion for the kicking game almost by accident as he moved from Syracuse to Buffalo State, New Haven, Wagner College and eventually Bates.

“The special teams coordinators where I worked always needed somebody to help out and I was going to find any way I could to help us win games,” McLaughlin says. “A lot of people kind of overlook special teams until it bites you in the butt but it was something that I just dove really deeply into. There were special teams coordinators that I really respected that I was able to work for.”

McLaughlin knows not everybody is so lucky in that regard, which is why included in the $500 dollar price-tag for the course is two hours of individual consultation with the instructors. Participants can use the time to pick the brains of McLaughlin and Reinebold on the course content or have the two experienced coaches analyze and review game film from the participant’s own team. When it comes to receiving analysis from a coach with Reinebold’s resume, featuring decades of experience as a position coach, coordinator, and head coach in the NCAA, NFL Europe and CFL, the opportunity can only be described as priceless.

Much has been made of the shrinking role of special teams in the NFL in recent years but at the high school, college or international level, explosive play on special teams can completely change the game. Even at the NFL level, good coaching still makes a difference according to McLaughlin.

“It’s certainly changed in the NFL and some of the big plays aren’t there as much, but you still see week after week huge plays made on special teams to change games,” he says. “Maybe one day they’ll drastically alter it and take off kickoffs entirely, but I think that would barely be football at that point.”

He and Reinbold hope their program can prepare coaches all over the world to be creative, adaptive and dynamic on special teams even as rules change and the flexibility of the internet platform means everyone from Syracuse to Stockholm can take advantage. While McLaughlin isn’t sure what the future holds for the program, the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive and Teams Talk is continuing to break new ground in the coaching landscape. That’s one resolution they don’t have to worry about but mastering special teams is one every coach should add to theirs.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.