It was an unprecedented year of special teams success for the San Francisco 49ers last season. Coordinator Brad Seely's coverage and kicking units dominated nearly every single stat category for the third phase of the game, and in some cases, the 49ers broke league records.
Because of the consistent efforts of 11 players working together at any given snap, the 49ers set the league's single-season net punting average of 44.0 yards per punt. As a result, All-Pro punter Andy Lee joined All-Pro kicker David Akers at the 2012 Pro Bowl. Akers, himself, set NFL record for most made field goals in a single-season when he connected on 44 made kicks. Akers also set the league record for most points (166) with no touchdown.
Members of the 49ers special teams believe it was just the beginning of what's to come for a group that accomplished a great deal in the unit's first season working together under Seely.
"We want to pick up where we left off last year," said linebacker Tavares Gooden, a founding member of the kick-off team's "Tony Montana Squad" persona. "That's what we're looking forward to the most. We're looking to pick up where we left off – let our defense play with a long field and let our offense play with a short field."
San Francisco led the NFL in both categories as well. Seely's special teams finished with the best starting position (33.5-yard line) and they held opponents to the top starting field position (24.3-yard line).
Emotional sparkplug Blake Costanzo left through free agency, but the 49ers feel the coverage units will continue to play all-out on every snap.
"We have some other guys who are going to be great additions," Gooden added. "We're not trying to release our information to the public, but we got some other guys out there who are great as well."
Rock Cartwright's presence hasn't been kept under wraps by any means.
The 5-foot-8, 215-pound running back who's entering his 11th NFL season comes to San Francisco with a great special teams reputation after most recently being the Oakland Raiders top coverage performer.
In all of his NFL experiences, Cartwright has never met a locker room so eager to compete on special teams.
"This is the first time ever," the veteran said bluntly. "A lot of time you get on teams and you'll be around guys who are like, 'This isn't really what I want to do.' They're just out there, not really giving their all."
Third-year running back Anthony Dixon is a prime example of a position player embracing a coverage role on special teams. As Mississippi State's all-time leader in rushing yards and carries, Dixon figured he'd be carrying the football primarily for the 49ers. But after serving as a short-yardage backup to all-time franchise rushing leader Frank Gore to start his professional career, Dixon had to take on special teams responsibilities to increase his role on the team.
Instead of sulking about his role, Dixon became one of the most exuberant players on the "Tony Montana Squad." Entering his third season, the 6-foot-1, 233-pound running back appreciates his role on special teams and uses it as a way to contribute to every 49ers game.
"I tell myself every morning when I wake up, 'I'm a football player,'" Dixon said, "not necessarily just a running back."
In addition to his running back responsibilities, Dixon asked coaches if he could practice at fullback in case the team needed additional depth behind starter Bruce Miller. Granted permission by the 49ers coaches to line up as a lead-blocker, Dixon said it doesn't detract from his role on coverage teams.
"I'm trying to get better in a whole bunch of areas, whether it's what Coach Seely wants me to do on special teams or if it's at running back, or fullback," Dixon said.
Veterans like Gooden and Cartwright who know just about all the tricks of the special teams trade continue to take notes whenever Seely's boisterous voice is leading drills at practice.
They, too, can see immediate returns on the veteran coordinator's teachings.
"The things we have to work on, we're working on," Gooden explained. "We're setting our feet, blocking people, staying man on man and we're going to continue to work on things we got hurt on last year."
Gooden, however, doesn't see the special teams taking on a new identity in 2012.
"The foundation's already been set, now we're building the pillars so we can build this house and put a roof on it," he said.
Dixon sees it the same way. In his mind, the "Tony Montana Squad" lives on.
"If it's not broke, don't fix it," he said. "We kind of got that going last year and the first game we played at home, it looked like everyone was into it and that's what we're going to need on Sundays to get the advantage. If we can get the whole 'Stick jumping last year, it's going to give us more energy."
Newcomers like Cartwright are eager to experience the growing phenomenon, too.
"It's different, but at the same time, it's exciting. I just want to go out there and do my part, contribute and show these guys I'm able to be a part of what they were doing last year.
"When you have a group of guys who play like a band of brothers who are committed to doing one thing and that's being great on special teams, it's a big plus."