PHILADELPHIA -- Johndale Carty never has forgotten what Dan Reeves told him and the rest of the rookies that arrived at the Atlanta Falcons training camp two summers ago.
"He said the best way for a rookie to make the club is on special teams," Carty said. "If that was the best way for me to make the team, then that's what I was willing to do."
Carty, like so many other zealous youngsters, still is trying to make a lasting impression doing the jobs nobody else wants on the special teams.
As the Falcons prepared for tonight's game at Philadelphia (8:20, ESPN), they know that of all the facets that compose a team's chance to win, the special teams have exceeded the play on both offense and defense. For once, the special teams in Atlanta are truly special.
The Falcons are among the league leaders in nearly every special team category -- kickoff and kickoff return, punt and punt return and field goals. If the Falcons are to break above the .500 mark tonight inside Veterans Stadium and remain in the hunt for an NFC playoff berth, the special teams will have to win their battles against the equally capable Eagles.
"It takes a special kind of person to play on special teams," said Gary Downs, one of the many players who share a kamikaze-like mentality. "You have to sacrifice your body. You get yourself ready for just one play, so you put all that energy into one play.
"The best way to think about special teams is to not think about it. You just react. If you thought about what happens on special teams, nobody would do it. It's not about being the smartest, it's about who has the most hustle, who wants to win the individual battles the most. If you're young and trying to make the final roster, you do it because it's your only ticket into the league. You sacrifice everything and you run 50 yards down field like a crazy man. If the ball comes your way, you blow him (ball carrier) up."
In Downs' case, it's a way to stay in the National Football League. Now in his seventh year, he's on the Falcons roster solely as a special teams player. He's officially listed as a running back, but he's not included on the team's depth charts on offense.
Atlanta (2-2) is ranked first in the NFC in defending punt returns (1.9 yards per punt), second in kickoff returns (31.6), second in field goals made (nine) and third in the fewest punt-return yards allowed (31).
Individually, Tim Dwight (14.2 yards per punt) is ranked third in punt returns, rookie Darrick Vaughn (34.8) is second in kickoff returns, Dwight (24.8) is fifth in kickoff returns and place-kicker Morten Andersen (9) is second in field goals made.
More important, however, are the little things the special teams have done to put the Falcons in a more favorable position. So far, Atlanta has blocked a punt and a field goal. Carty hit Denver place-kicker Jason Elam so hard on a return that it cracked a couple vertebrae in his lower back, and last week, he hit St. Louis punt returner Az-Zahir Hakim and forced a fumble.
"When you're starting out, you have to find a way to make the team," Vaughn said. "My attitude was to make the roster on special teams, then use the time to learn defense. I'm buying time while I'm learning to play cornerback.
"You've got to be a demon to play special teams. When you play offense and defense, you have a game plan. There's no game plan on special teams -- just 11 guys running as hard as they can, trying to take a guy who's running in the other direction as hard as he can."
Vaughn already has a kickoff return for 100 yards and touchdown. That return has helped the Falcons rank second in the NFC for the best starting position after a kickoff -- the 31.6-yard line.
Philadelphia (2-2) also has weapons on special teams. The Eagles are ranked fifth in the best starting position following a kickoff -- the 28.4-yard line. Brian Mitchell is ranked fourth in punt returns with a 13.6-yard average, including a 72-yard touchdown a week ago in Philadelphia's 21-7 win at New Orleans. Eagles punter Sean Landeta is ranked second with a booming 46.7-yard average.
"Special teams is all about effort," Downs said. "It's not necessarily about talent. Things don't just happen on special teams. It's a matter of will, a matter of determination."
And a good way for young players to make an NFL roster.
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