Rich Bisaccia’s departure left a noticeable void in the Las Vegas Raiders special teams room. The veteran coach wore many hats for the Silver & Black last season going from special teams boss to the head honcho.
The void is now filled by Tom McMahon. Like Bisaccia, McMahon is a longtime special teams coordinator dating back to his initial stint with the St. Louis Rams from 2009 to 2011 — coincidentally, that 2011 season was when now Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels was the Rams offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Unlike Bisaccia, however, McMahon doesn’t have the consistent track record of leading quality special teams groups. The kicking game fluctuated in effectiveness in McMahon’s most recent stop (Denver Broncos 2018 to 2021) as did the coverage and return units. So there’s a bit of angst in how McMahon can reach the bar set by his predecessor.
What helps McMahon in Vegas tremendously though is having a stellar battery in long snapper Trent Sieg, place kicker Daniel Carlson, and punter A.J. Cole III. The kicking game should be the least of McMahon’s worries as the trio are dialed in and have worked to hone their craft.
“Just working on the cohesion with Trent (Sieg) and Daniel (Carlson). It’s something that we have a lot of reps in the bank, but it’s not something we are taking for granted,” said Cole when asked what he’s been working on in training camp. “So, we are trying to go out there every single day and build that cohesion, build that trust and there is never a point where we’ve gotten enough reps and we’ve gotten enough trust in each other, so that’s really big.”
Leave it to Carlson to put what he and Cole do in the simplest of terms.
“Tom (McMahon) has been here a long time. We’ve played against him and now it’s fun to have him on our side and some of the schemes and stuff like that,” Carlson said. “For me and AJ, for the most part our job stays the same. Punt it, kick it, far and high and straight, all that good stuff.”
If anything, McMahon is coaching consistency with Cole — who was first-team All Pro last season — Carlson and Sieg.
“From a coaching standpoint, I think the biggest thing and the way I’m approaching it is consistency. We want the same ball all the time by both of them because if they hit that same ball, that’s perfection,” McMahon noted. “It’s no different than a three-point shooter, he makes all his threes, he shoots it the same. Great free throw shooters. We want the same exact ball, and that’s really what we are shooting for.”
Consistency is required in other aspects of McMahon’s group, too. Namely the Raiders coverage and return units need upgrading. Cole’s punting numbers and averages would’ve been even more impressive with stout coverage. The loss of linebacker Micah Kiser — he played for McMahon in Denver last season — to a season-ending injury hurts Las Vegas’ special teams crew. But it opens the door for another linebacker or Raider to step up.
Flip the script to the Raiders kick and punt return units, and McMahon needs to identify who will return kickoffs while also deciding if wide receiver Hunter Renfrow remains as the primary punt returner. The shifty Renfrow has the reliable hands and agility to make defenders miss and give the Raiders solid field position returning boots.
“I want workers. Work and win start with a ‘w’ for a reason, so the bottom line is you got to start there with workers,” McMahon answered when asked what type of players from offense and defense he’s looking for on special teams. “And then guys that really understand the game of leverage. That understand that your eyes are going to create the winning leverage at the end of the day. And then the fundamentals will take over with what your eyes and your body does. We have to maintain our leverage on special teams, not only in coverage units but it’s in the return units, and the eyes control your body. And that comes with work.
“We need five mismatches on special teams. And they are really starting to understand that, look if I can be the best at blocking punts, I can be the best in transition blocking in the league, in the gunner, so on and so forth. So, they are all trying to find that one niche.”
The Raiders punter did well to become a boomer that can blast boots long distances with equally impressive hang time. That’s still a focus but Cole is also trying to dial up the coffin corner-type punts, too.
“I’ve worked a lot on my directional punting in the offseason, so that’s something that I’m going to go into this year really trying to focus on,” Cole noted. “Obviously, the distance and the hang time is something I’m always working on, but I think my big focus this offseason was directional punting and just trying to put that ball outside the numbers as much as possible. That was a big focus for me.”
Back-to-back seasons with impressive field goal percentages (94.3 and 93 percent, respectively in 2020 and 2021) would have most kickers brimming with confidence. Carlson, however, is straight-to-the-point. The last two seasons were nice, but he’s always trying to prove himself.
“Last season at this point doesn’t matter. Obviously, it’s nice to have that but every year during camp I kind of write my own goals,” Carlson said. “Some of that may be based on, ‘hey, I want to improve on this from last year.’ But each year is a new year and I got to continue to prove myself. It’s more like proving it to myself and competing with myself, and so every year I’m trying to improve. Obviously, I’m human and I’m never going to be perfect, but I’m just going to try to get as close as I can to that each day when I practice or play in a game as well.”