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A zanier Belichick? John Fassel's bold approach to special teams

ATLANTA -- John Fassel loves the moment just before a packed stadium learns his secret, before his latest brainstorm comes to life.

"It's fun being one of only 13 people on the sideline that knows what's going to happen. Me, coach [Sean] McVay and the 11 people on the punt team," Fassel told this week.

This should be a moment of trepidation for the 45-year-old special teams coordinator. The ensuing play could potentially make or break his week or the Rams' season. After failed fake punts, Fassel admits to being wracked by "brutal" regret and hindsight, investigating his foiled plans for what went wrong. But after calling one of his plays in, Fassel insists he feels no pressure, just eager anticipation.

That was the case during the NFC Championship Game, when Fassel's fake-punt call early in the second quarter helped turn the game around.

"I felt really confident because it had succeeded on the practice field. If we got the right look and the right matchup -- which we did -- we felt it was going to work," Fassel said.

It did. Punter Johnny Hekker found cornerback Sam Shields for a completion on the outside and Shields made a move to convert a first down, leading the Rams to their first points of the game.

McVay had trusted Fassel to make the bold call -- which came with the Rams trailing 13-0 and on their own 30-yard line -- because the special teams wizard has been right so many times before.

The inspiration for Fassel's trick plays can arrive at any moment, so he tries to stay ready.

"It comes anytime. When you are trying to sleep, on the beach, on a mountain, during the practice week," Fassel said. "I'm really always thinking about football."

Fassel, affectionately nicknamed "Bones" for his lanky stature, notes that special teams are unique because there is no set playbook for plays or fakes. Every game is different -- plays are specifically designed for that week's opponent. Some special teams coaches keep a database for fakes attempted around the league, but Fassel appears to discount that approach, noting that plays have to be tailored to his players' strengths and weaknesses, so cribbing off others wouldn't work. And like a firework, most fakes can only be used once.

The first step in converting a play from daydream to reality begins by selling McVay on the idea. Fassel has been told by McVay (and former Rams coach Jeff Fisher) that he's "nuts" for an idea, but Fassel credits McVay for usually being receptive. The Rams try out a lot of ideas during rehearsal (on the practice field) that never make it to air.

"You know Coach Bones is going to come up with something each week," said Rams core special teamer Blake Countess. "And we can't wait to see it. He knows we have weapons on special teams that could and should be used."

Linebacker Ramik Wilson says he looks forward to the first special teams meeting of the week just to see what Fassel has come up with, noting that he can be as creative with his coverage units as any fakes. The Rams then work on their menu specials, which make the tentative game-day plan if they're successful on the practice field.

In Fassel, McVay has found another cerebral coach from a football family -- Fassel's father, Jim, was head coach of the Giants from 1997 through 2003 -- who isn't afraid to think outside the box. McVay deserves credit for hiring him in the first place. Fassel spent three weeks as the Rams' interim head coach at the end of the 2016 season after Fisher's firing, a decision that Rams executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff said was a no-brainer because of how much all the players respect Fassel. The team played hard in three subsequent losses, but the former Raiders special teams coordinator (2008-2011) was in limbo for weeks waiting to see if he'd get a job with the Rams' new staff.

"You never really know," Fassel said. "When we found out [McVay] was going to keep us, it was like breathing new life. ... It seems like an eternity ago, but really it was just 730 days ago." (Not that anyone is counting.)

One of McVay's underrated successes is in building his staff. He had the confidence to hire a former head coach in Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator and retain a special teams coordinator in Fassel who still has head-coaching aspirations. When I listened to Fassel this week, I couldn't help but think his quotes were coming from a zanier Bill Belichick.

"The biggest thing is knowing what your guys can do. And trying to find opportunities to do it," Fassel said.

Return specialist JoJo Natson spoke about how Fassel knows how to cover up a player's weaknesses and put him in position to showcase his strengths. Linebacker Cory Littleton, who has blocked four punts over the last two seasons, lauded Fassel's knowledge of how to attack an opponent's weak points. Focusing on what a player can do and wiping the slate clean every week are two tenets Belichick lives by.

It doesn't hurt Fassel, of course, to have a pupil in Hekker with so many obvious gifts. Belichick has called Hekker a "weapon" repeatedly because of his track record as a superior punter who can also spin the ball like a backup quarterback. Hekker has attempted 20 passes over the past seven seasons, averaging a Tom Brady-like 8.4 yards per attempt. Fassel believes Hekker has the arm of a college quarterback and could have played the position if he wasn't determined to play in the Pac-10, where he punted for Oregon State.

"He loves throwing routes more than he loves to punt a football," Fassel said of Hekker.

McVay spoke last week about how Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein can make it easier on the rest of the team. Not only can Hekker's athleticism as a runner and passer open up potential fakes, but his ability to change field position with his directional punting (and Fassel's coverage unit) allows the offense to take more chances. Zuerlein, long one of the better kickers in the league, allowed the Rams to play it relatively safe on offense in overtime of the NFC title game against the Saints. McVay might have been criticized for essentially settling for a 57-yard game winner, but the kick looked like it would have been good from 70 yards out.

While the team's kickoff and punt-coverage groups haven't been as strong this season, Fassel's track record is undeniable. In his seven seasons at the helm for the Rams in St. Louis and Los Angeles, they have ranked among the top four special teams units three times, with two other top-seven finishes, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. Only two teams have enjoyed a better track record over that span: Baltimore and -- surprise, surprise -- New England. Special teams success has been a key ingredient to Belichick's secret sauce, and while the Patriots have struggled at times this year, Fassel spoke about facing New England special teamers Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Cordarrelle Patterson and Albert McClellan like he was lining up against the '99 Rams offense. Belichick similarly lauded the Rams' entire unit, but he was particularly worried about Hekker.

"I think the main thing when you send your punt-return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play," Belichick wryly noted.

Belichick spent eight of his first 10 seasons as an NFL coach working with special teams and has often credited that time as crucial in learning how to coach players on both sides of the ball. The path from special teams coordinator to the top spot is rarely made in the modern NFL, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh being an exception. Fassel would love to break that trend, and Demoff believes Fassel would be an "outside the box" candidate with the skill set to lead a team.

Convincing an NFL owner to be that open-minded could be difficult in a copycat league. There's an element of a mad scientist to Fassel, his gangly body and energetic demeanor cutting a different figure than the stereotypical head coach, like Belichick once did. But Fassel clearly has a creative mind for the game and -- more importantly -- his players uniformly swear by him.

"Fassel brings that energy where it makes you want to go out there and play your heart out for him," Natson said.

Fassel says that the modern NFL is such a big business that he constantly tries to remind his players how improbable their careers are, how much fun they are having along the way at work.

When I asked Countess what made Fassel unique, he answered, "What doesn't he do that's unique?"

Belichick first won over skeptical veteran players by giving them practical tips that would translate to production. Fassel wins his loyalty in much the same way.

"He'll give you techniques to dominate your opponent and then you do it in the game and it happens exactly the way he says it's going to happen," Countess said. "It's like he's a psychic or something."

It would take a higher power to divine what Fassel has up his sleeve for Super Bowl Sunday, but it's safe to assume he wouldn't come this far only to get vanilla on the game's biggest stage. There could be a moment in Super Bowl LIII when the Rams need a spark, when Fassel gets the look from the Patriots he anticipates, when he is one of only 13 people in the world who knows that a career-defining moment is arriving. Asked how many specialty plays he'll have ready for that moment, Fassel beams.

"Enough for people to tune in and see," he said.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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