Football Outsiders' 30 best NFL special-teams units of the past 30 years

Special teams guru Dave Toub (center) saw Devin Hester (left) and Tyreek Hill (right) become return-man stars under his tutelage. ESPN Illustration

All week, we're looking at Football Outsiders' "30 for 30," featuring the 30 best teams of the past 30 years according to our advanced DVOA ratings. With our first two lists, it was easy to compare our ratings to standard stats such as total points or yards. But today, we're going to look at the third part of the game, the one often ignored by conventional NFL stats: special teams.

Great special teams will often make offenses and defenses look better. That isn't just because of field goals or touchdown returns. Good returns let the offense start closer to the end zone. Strong kickoffs and punts give the defense more room to work with.

Football Outsiders' special-teams ratings combine measurement of five main phases of special teams: field goals, kickoffs, punts, kick returns and punt returns. We measure field goals by comparing each kick to the average expected value of a field goal attempt from the same spot. We measure the other four areas of special teams by comparing each kick or punt to the league average based on the expected point value of field position at the yard line where each kickoff/punt is kicked, caught and returned to. All of our special-teams ratings are adjusted for weather and altitude because it's easier to kick indoors or in the thin air of Denver.

A longer explanation of our special-teams method can be found here, and remember: You can find DVOA stats for all 30 seasons on the stats pages at Football Outsiders. Ratings for each season are normalized to reflect the changes in NFL rules for special teams and the continuous improvement of kickers over the past 30 years.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this list is the team that isn't on it. The New England Patriots have had a remarkable run of consistently strong special teams. They have rated above-average for 21 straight seasons. That doesn't just extend to before the Bill Belichick era -- it also extends to before the Pete Carroll era. The Patriots currently have a seven-year streak of ranking in the top eight, yet New England has never ranked No. 1 in special-teams DVOA, and the best Patriots special-teams unit (2002) would be No. 42 on this list.

Note: 0 percent DVOA represents the league average, so a special-teams unit with a +12 percent mark rated 12 percent better than an average unit. Also, stats other than total special teams DVOA represent the regular season only, unless noted. Special thanks to Jeremy Snyder, who did most of the transcription work on the late 1980s and early '90s.

30. 2015 Baltimore Ravens

+7.3 percent

Last year, kicker Justin Tucker had the most valuable year of field goals by any kicker in our 30-year database, but Baltimore's special teams as a whole were better in both 2014 and 2015. The Ravens were worth at least 4.5 points over average in all five areas of special teams that we measure.

29. 2000 Tennessee Titans

+7.4 percent

Kicker Al Del Greco was almost exactly average on both field goals and kickoffs, but the Titans got a strong year from punter Craig Hentrich, and Derrick Mason was elected to the Pro Bowl for kickoff returns and punt returns.

28. 2010 Chicago Bears

+7.4 percent

The Bears appear four times on this list, but this season more than any other was about Devin Hester's dominance. He returned three punts for touchdowns and averaged a league-leading 17.1 yards per punt return, which makes this the most valuable punt return season in our 30-year database.