Finally, Super special stage

1-29-04, 9:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ Jarrod Cooper is suddenly Gary Cooper at this Super Bowl, appearing on just about every camera screaming Christina Aguilera's name and telling her he has left tickets for her and her family.

"I love her. She can have all my money," said Cooper Wednesday as one of Carolina's special teams' aces enjoyed the high-roller atmosphere.

"Shameless. Who cares? I'll be dead soon. You've got to have fun. I still think I'm playing backyard football. The funnest thing you can do is get to put on a uniform and enjoy playing. It can be gone so quick."

Welcome to the all-out, go-for-it, hell-bent, passionate Carolina special teams, the defining phase of a Panthers' team that has reached the Super Bowl with the formula Marvin Lewis hopes to bring to the Bengals: an offense that stays on the field, a defense that shuts down the field to big plays, and a special teams that doesn't lose games and might win you one every few weeks.

Indeed, the grimy, netherworld of special teams may just be the defining part of this Super Bowl that is thankfully short on glamour and long on football. Christina Aguilera may have returned the favor on "Entertainment Tonight," screaming Cooper's name, but this is a serious game of "60 Minutes," football.

A mentor game. It's a big moment for what once was the always ignored special teams. Now teams are finally getting their due on a stage big enough for their importance.

Scott O'Brien of the Panthers, regarded as the godfather of NFL special teams coaches, goes against the man who brought him into the league 13 years ago, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick, now the resident guru of gurus, has brought respect to special teams like Bill Walsh did to offensive coordinators and Bill Parcells to defensive coordinators.

"I would never crack a joke in a meeting with Scott," Cooper said. "Punch lines aren't his thing. . . He's real serious."

Their long-range special teams numbers suggest they would meet at some point in a big game. In 2002, the Pats were ranked second in the NFL in The Dallas Morning News' compilation of total special teams. The Panthers were 11th. In 2001, they were fifth and sixth, respectively. In 2000, the Panthers were second and New England seventh. This year they are both expected to be in the top ten again.

Belichick's first jobs in the league in the late' 70s and early '80s in Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, and then the Giants, were coaching special teams. All of this wasn't lost on Lewis when he swiped O'Brien's assistant from Carolina a year ago and made Darrin Simmons the Bengals special teams coach.

"These guys are clones of each other," said Lewis of O'Brien and the Pats' Brad Seely, the Super special teams coaches. "We have a clone. We took the clone of these guys."

Simmons may be the third generation in the Belichick-O'Brien tree, but he is still a close cousin to Carolina. Even Tuesday night from the Super Bowl, Cooper and kick returner Rod Smart chatted on the phone at some point with Simmons. Smart even found Simmons coaching him up a bit.

"Last year we would go over notes of the guys we were going against," Smart said, "and he was asking me who was on my side."

Simmons, a detail man, can't resist coaching the passion, much like O'Brien. Wide receiver Karl Hankton, the Panthers special teams captain, admitted this week on the days he couldn't go to O'Brien this season with something, he would call Simmons and use him as a sounding board.

No big deal. These Panthers are used to pulling out all the stops on special teams. No NFL team has blocked more kicks since 1995. This year, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins became the first man in history to block a point-after to send a game into overtime. Someone asked Cooper if O'Brien had left any stone unturned in his preparation for New England.

"If he has," Cooper said, "it's at the bottom of the ocean. And it's not going to matter."

O'Brien has looked on approvingly at Simmons' move to Cincinnati. It didn't surprise him. O'Brien coached with Lewis for a year at the University of Pittsburgh in 1990 and they hooked up for a time with the Ravens later in the decade, ample time for Lewis to feel the positive vibes of the Belichick-O'Brien system.

"Marvin knows the importance of it," said O'Brien with a smile."

O'Brien knows that a head coach can make all the difference for a special teams coach. When Belichick hired him as the Browns' special teams coach in 1991, O'Brien felt like he gave him everything that he needed in the way of structure and time. Belichick gave O'Brien a lot of leeway, and that wasn't always happening back then.

"There was a change in the emphasis on the quality of special teams coaches," O'Brien said. "It was not a buddy that you knew. That this was not an entry level job for you because there was nothing else to do. With the parity in the league now, you can't give away that edge. And a guy like Darrin has lived through that kind of change."

In 1994, O'Brien and Belichick put together in Cleveland what is regarded as the best special teams group of all time. Because his uncle was the strength coach of that team, Darrin Simmons spent time around those Browns as a ballboy and soaked up what he could.

One thing he learned is that Belichick isn't as dour as his reputation.

"He's always been good to me and when I see him around now, we talk," Simmons said. "I think people view him as very dry, but he's got a good sense of humor. I think he's changed since he was in Cleveland, but people misread him a lot of times. He's strictly football, that's his profession. That's all he does. Just like Scott.

"They're out of the same mold," Simmons said. "They're very thorough. They try to replicate situations so that all you have to do in the game is just react. There's a ton of Belichick in Scott."

There's a ton of O'Brien in Simmons. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham worked with both in Carolina and sees the same system. He shakes his head at "Umpire Alert," a last-second field goal Simmons works on. That's if the Bengals have a fourth-and-short with no timeouts left and about two seconds left and the referees need to measure for a first down. That gives the Bengals time to get their field-goal team on the field, and the holder looks at the umpire and the second he moves his hand to start the clock, the holder calls for the snap.

"That's how detailed it gets," Graham said.

More detail? In the waning moments of the Bengals' win over Baltimore this season, the Ravens put both kickers out there for an on-side kick, but Simmons knew Wade Richey did it better than Matt Stover. Just like the Panthers worked with punt returner Steve Smith on reading the laces of the ball and the wind so he could catch punts easier, Simmons worked with the Bengals' Peter Warrick over the summer on the same things.

O'Brien has excelled in all three phases of what makes a good special teams coach. His technique has been solid enough to send double-digit players to the Pro Bowl. His ability to scheme and find weaknesses in the foe was highlighted with three blocked kicks against Tampa Bay, including the blocked extra point.

"For the field-goal block team, it's not a play so they can kick a field goal and we can hurry up and go and get some Gatorade," defensive end Al Wallace told The Charlotte Observer earlier this year. "We count that as another defensive play."

His evaluation of talent is reflected in guys like Hankton, a wide receiver that position coach Richard Williamson says has played about 10 snaps in three years from scrimmage.

"If you're not good enough to be in the top three or four at any spot," Williamson said, "you have to do it and you have to be good at it."

But the biggest asset O'Brien and Simmons probably have is their passion for coaching a phase of the game that a lot of players don't have passion for. But it's contagious. O'Brien has been known to somersault out of a chair before a meeting, and Simmons runs down field to cover kicks so he can see what his players see.

"I think the big thing is the mentality of the players you get, too," Simmons said. "Tough guys. You're looking for tough guys."

He remembers when Hankton shattered his arm a few years back and they had to put a plate in it so it would heal. He wanted to play the next week, and Hankton was so furious that they wouldn't let him that he nearly went after then head coach George Seifert.

Injured guys trying to play special teams?

This is a new era.

One time after a practice in Carolina, Simmons, a punter at Kansas, was asking the guys if they wanted him to kick it in the barrel to the right or to the left. When he let one fly, it hit O'Brien in the back and Simmons ran for his life off the field. By the time O'Brien turned around, all he could see was Cooper and O'Brien started screaming at him.

"Crazy," Cooper said.

But you have to be a little to play special teams.

Cooper agreed.

"To run down the field as fast you can to hit somebody? Yeah."

But, finally, in the 38th Super Bowl, special teams is no longer a nutty little part of the game.

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