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49ers, Ravens’ miscues show just how special Bears’ Dave Toub is

Kyle Williams 49ers reacts after fumbling ball overtime NFC Championship Game against New York Giants. The mistake cost Niners chance

Kyle Williams of the 49ers reacts after fumbling the ball in overtime of the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. The mistake cost the Niners a chance to go to the Super Bowl. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Updated: January 23, 2012 1:01PM

Dave Toub signed too soon.

The Bears made Toub one of the highest-paid special teams coaches in the NFL last week when they signed him to a two-year contract after he interviewed for the head coaching position with the Dolphins that went to Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.

But Toub’s value might be even higher today after special-teams miscues cost the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Jim Harbaugh was doing everything right in maxing out with the 49ers this season until special teams depth exposed a fatal flaw in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Candlestick Park. When Ted Ginn, Jr. was injured against the Saints last week, second-year wide receiver Kyle Williams replaced him and made two costly errors on punt returns — including a fumble in overtime — that made the difference in the 49ers’ gut-wrenching 20-17 loss to the New York Giants.

The Ravens’ fatal special-teams miscue had more to do with bad timing than coaching, but was just as painful for John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach. Veteran place-kicker Billy Cundiff, a Pro Bowler last season, hooked a 32-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds — though even Cundiff acknowledged that an imperfect snap seem to throw off the timing of the play.

Particularly in the 49ers’ case, the championship-game gaffes highlighted the importance of special teams — and special-teams coaches. Even when Devin Hester is not available, Toub has turned to Danieal Manning, Johnny Knox or Earl Bennett — all of whom have returned kicks for touchdowns under Toub. And when’s the last time Robbie Gould missed a game-winning kick?

The Bears’ special teams actually faltered late in the season in 2011 as too many rookies and inexperienced newcomers were utilized. But even then it took a series of defections, injuries and one drug arrest for the attrition to be conspicuous.

The Bears had four coaches on their staff with head-coaching experience in the NFL — Lovie Smith, Mike Martz, Mike Tice and Rod Marinelli. But Toub might end up being the best of all of them if ever gets the opportunity.

But there’s the rub. Though special teams and special-teams coaches have received more of their due in recent years, there’s still a stigma attached to special-teams coaches. While Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are often cited as examples of former special teams coaches who became head coaches, neither was a special teams coach when he was hired as a head coach.

The Eagles’ Andy Reid, in fact, ‘‘demoted’’ John Harbaugh to defensive backs coach in 2007 for the expressed intent of making him more marketable as a head coach. And it worked. Harbaugh was hired by the Ravens the following season.

Toub just lost a head-coaching job to Philbin, who coordinates an offense that is dominated by head coach Mike McCarthy. It might serve Toub’s long-term interests better if he took the same tack as Harbaugh. Toub, a former center in college, could become the offensive line coach for Mike Tice without any problem. But the Bears would never take the hit on special teams (the Eagles suffered noticeably when Harbaugh coached the defensive backs in 2007).

Regardless, Toub remains a viable head-coaching candidate. A big chunk of his job is managing players — a huge key to success in any sport — because most of the players he coaches would rather be doing something else. He convinces them that special-teams players are starters and they play like it.

Toub coaches offensive and defensive players. He puts players where they can help him most. And he’s a good teacher. The skills that make position players Pro Bowlers — a quick first step, superior strength and speed — aren’t as dominant on special teams. Julius Peppers would make the Pro Bowl if you or I were the Bears’ defensive line coach. But even Toub’s best athletes — with the possible exception of Hester — need to be to be taught the nuances of their position to be effective on special teams. It’s a tougher job than it looks.

Unfortunately, even today those qualities seem to be overlooked when they belong to special teams coaches. If the Bears’ new general manager is going to need Lovie Smith’s seal of approval, the Bears would be wise to make sure he’s comfortable with Toub as well. It’s called thinking ahead — a novel approach at Halas Hall, but one that sometimes pays unexpected dividends.

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