NEW ORLEANS — There is a 30% chance that the turning point of Super Bowl XX will be a play made by one of the special teams.
That is the view of some of the NFL's coaches and scouts, who say that a fumble, a field goal or a kick return could be decisive.
If it's a kick return, they nominate Irving Fryar of the New England Patriots as the man most likely to succeed.
"Fryar gives New England the advantage in special teams play in this game," said Steve Ortmayer, the special teams coach of the Raiders. "The Bears may have the better defense, but Fryar is the best punt runner in the league--if he's ready."
He wasn't ready for New England's last game in Miami. Cut up in what he said was an accident with a kitchen knife, he still has a bad finger. But he wants to start in New Orleans.
"As far as the finger (is concerned), I can play," Fryar said.
New England Coach Raymond Berry plans to try Fryar on the punt return team, and if that works, perhaps later as a receiver.
"Irving will catch the first (Chicago) punt," Berry said.
It will present Fryar with both a challenge and an opportunity. He will have the opportunity to use his extraordinary speed--reportedly 4.39 seconds for 40 yards--to break a touchdown run.
But the challenge is enormous. Few jobs in football are more difficult than catching a punt--even with 10 working fingers--and bringing it back 5 or 10 yards.
A well-kicked, high punt sometimes does strange things in the air. It may come down swirling and bobbing, even in an indoor stadium, and slap hard into the hands of the player who has to handle it.
After concentrating on catching the ball and putting it away, the punt returner must turn and take on half a dozen angry opponents bearing down on him at high speed. The skills required after the catch are those of a running back in an open field--courage, elusiveness, and tackle-breaking power.
Ideally, running backs should be used to return punts. The problem--for many of them--is that they can't catch the thing.
Fryar, who normally can, averaged 14.1 yards in 37 punt returns this season to lead the NFL. His hands are the reason he has the job. The bonus for the Patriots is his great speed.
Ortmayer, who doubles as the Raiders' director of football operations, said: "The Patriots would have a slight edge over the Bears in the kicking game with any of their punt runners (Roland James, Stephen Starring or Fryar). With Fryar, they have a clear edge."
A former Nebraska All-American receiver, Fryar was the first college player taken in the NFL's 1984 draft.
If the Patriots have a chance Sunday, he's one of the reasons.
Here are some of the special things about the game's special teams:
KICKING Kevin Butler of the Bears, who has had the flu this week, is a gifted rookie placekicker from Georgia.
Tony Franklin of the Patriots is a seven-year veteran picked up from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Chicago's fourth-round draft choice last April, Butler probably has more accuracy than Franklin. But Franklin has more big-game experience.
Butler, who kicked 51 extra points this season in 51 shots and made 31 of 37 field-goals attempts, led the NFL in scoring with 144 points. His longest field goal was 46 yards.
Franklin's longest was 50. He made 40 of 41 conversion kicks and 24 of 30 field-goal attempts.
KICKOFFS Butler gives Chicago the advantage kicking off. His range and hang time are both respectable.
"This is the best rookie kicker to come into the league in some time," said Ortmayer.
New England's special teams weakness is Franklin kicking off. The Patriots' barefoot boy lacks both distance and height.
As a placekicker, however, Franklin is coming into the Super Bowl at his peak. His last two seasons have been his best in football, which explains why the Patriots put up with his kickoffs.
If Butler can't answer the bell, defensive tackle Steve McMichael will kick off.
The Bears say Walter Payton is their backup placekicker.
PUNTING This appears to be an undistinguished area for both teams, although Rich Camarillo has been reliable enough for New England. And as a five-year veteran he has big-game punting experience.
Chicago's Maury Buford is just another punter who made the Super Bowl this season because San Diego let him go.
For the Bears, Buford averaged 42.2 yards, sixth in the NFC. His net average was 34.6. He put 18 of 68 punts inside the 20.
For the Patriots, Camarillo's 43.0 was third in the AFC. His net, 33.6, was well under Ray Guy's league-leading 36.3 for the Raiders. Camarillo dropped only 16 of 92 punts inside the 20.
The Raiders call Camarillo slow.
"We got one and nearly blocked two others," Ortmayer said.
In the regular season, Camarillo had no punts blocked.
KICK RETURNS The two highest-percentage special teams possibilities are that Fryar will make some yardage carrying punts and that Chicago's Willie Gault will break a kickoff return.
In both instances, the caliber of the kicking is part of the reason.