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Ligashesky brings energy in trying to revamp kick, return teams
By Bill Coats
Of the Post-Dispatch
What's a rarer sighting: a) an ivory-billed woodpecker, until recently thought to be extinct, or b) the same man occupying the second-floor office of the special-teams coach at Rams Park for more than one year?
Mike Stock, Bobby April and Larry Pasquale might well choose b). All were hired and fired as Mike Martz's special-teams coach over the past five seasons. Of the three, only April lasted more than one year in St. Louis.
Faulty special-teams play has been a constant on Martz's watch, and the stumbling and bumbling never were more evident than last season. The Rams, under Stock, ranked 31st in the 32-team NFL in punt returns (4.8-yard average) and kickoff returns (19.1). They didn't cover any better, finishing 30th in defending punt returns (11.9) and 32nd on kickoffs (25.5).
And they saved their worst for last: Atlanta's Allen Rossum set a league postseason record by piling up 152 yards in punt returns, including a 68-yard touchdown dash, in the Falcons' 47-17 drubbing of the Rams in the NFC semifinals on Jan. 15. Stock was dismissed five days later.
Nonetheless, Bob Ligashesky said job security wasn't atop his priority list when the following day he decided to accept Martz's offer to replace Stock. "I didn't really think about that," said Ligashesky, 43. "You really think about more that it's an opportunity to become part of a successful organization."
Martz and Ligashesky worked together from 1986 to 1988, as assistant coaches at Arizona State. Martz moved up to the NFL in 1992, as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams. Ligashesky, a Pittsburgh native, stayed with college football, moving on to Kent State, Bowling Green and finally Pittsburgh from 2000-03.
His first, and only, pro experience came last year as an assistant to special-teams coach Pete Rodriguez in Jacksonville. In 2004, the Jaguars ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in most special-teams categories.
Martz said he hadn't kept in touch with Ligashesky and was surprised when his former colleague's name kept coming up as he asked others around the league about candidates to succeed Stock. "They said, 'There's this guy down in Jacksonville ... '" Martz said.
Ligashesky was given considerable opportunity during the recent three-day minicamp to drill his various units. According to Martz, he did so at a breakneck pace and yet with painstaking precision.
"He's high-energy," Martz said. "I think the approach and the way he goes about it, the attention to details, is very significant. It's a marked difference." Ligashesky said his frenetic behavior on the field comes naturally. "I don't really think about it when I'm out there," he said. "I just know that I'm trying to get to everybody in a small amount of time."
Building solid special teams, Ligashesky explained, is rooted in finding committed individuals and then refining their skills. Noting that 20 percent of the plays in a typical NFL game involve special teams, he said: "It all starts with attitude and belief in its importance. The players have to buy into what you're doing, and then it's executing the technique and then being able to adjust as situations occur."
Then comes the teaching part, Ligashesky explained. "Basically I believe in ongoing skill and technique development, which means trying to get the players to execute at the highest level, to the best of their ability," he said. "And no matter what the scheme we decide to run, it has more to do with how you execute the technique than the actual scheme itself."
As for his personnel, Ligashesky said: "It doesn't matter if they're starters or if they're backups. Let's get the best players for that phase out of the 53 and let's go." In their offseason transactions, including the draft and the recruitment of rookie free agents, the Rams searched for players who could provide help on special teams. Critics had charged that such an emphasis wasn't always in place in the past.
Ligashesky said that first, he wants special-teams players "who believe strongly in its importance." Among the Rams, "I would say the majority of them do, because they all want to be successful," he said. "That is one of the most exciting things that's happened to me since I've been here. Everybody has been so open and receptive to us being successful on special teams. ...
"They want to contribute to the success of this football team. And I think special teams is probably one of the easiest ways for us to be more successful."
Martz's special guys
Mike Martz has had glowing words for Bob Ligashesky, the most recent special-teams coach he has hired during his five-year tenure. (Story, D3)
But that's nothing new. Here's what Martz said about the other special-teams coaches at the time they were hired:
"The guy we've got now, he's the best in the league." - Feb. 24, 2000
Fired Jan. 2, 2001
"In my estimation, he's the best in the game at what he does. Bobby loves what he does. He has a great passion for what he does, and he's a great communicator and teacher with the players." - Aug. 15, 2001
Contract not renewed after 2003 season
"It was a no-brainer for us. He came so highly recommended, that I felt like we had to get him in. He's exactly what I'm looking for." - Feb. 23, 2004
Fired Jan. 20, 2005
"I've always been extremely impressed with his work ethic and his commitment. He's a bulldog. He's just a mad dog. ... He's a high-energy guy, which is what we want." - Jan. 21, 2005