There’s been something missing this offseason, and I’ve finally figured out what it is: the annual tirade of Packers fans against special teams coach Shawn Slocum and offensive line coach James Campen. What once was a common occurrence has quietly but certainly escaped from our foremost thoughts. They have only been mentioned in mere passing in recent news stories, and even the most rabid of fans have barely even whispered their names.
All of this, evidently, must be a good thing.
Just about 11 months ago, our own Zach Kruse wrote a post detailing five areas in which the Packers could improve in 2011, despite having won a Super Bowl title the previous year. Three of those areas were Kick and Punt Returning, Kick and Punt Coverage, and Pass Protection. In revisiting those now, we’ve seen some noteworthy improvements.
In first looking at Special Teams, the addition of Randall Cobb as a punt and kick returner was huge. Not only did he win the NFL Honors Play of the Year for his 108-yard kickoff return against the New Orleans Saints, but he made a significant mark on the statistics sheets. In yards per punt return, Cobb ranked third in the NFL (13.4), and he ranked seventh in yards per kickoff return (27.6).
While a lot of this is due to the athletic talent and vision that Cobb possesses, these plays would not have been possible without the blocking of the special teams units. And for that, we have to give credit to Slocum. If we are going to blame him for the failures, then it would only be right to praise him for the successes.
In fact, if you go by the advanced statistical measurements of Football Outsiders (FO), the Packers special teams unit ranked 8th in DVOA (3.5%) across the league in 2011. Last year they ranked 26th (1.6%).
Now how about that offensive line?
Well, to look at it statistically, they actually slid back a little bit. Their 41 sacks allowed last year numbered three more than the year of their Super Bowl run, and according to FO, their Adjusted Sack Rate rose from 7.2% to 7.4%. But if this is the case, why haven’t we heard the rallying cry against Campen lately?
Personnel changes have the most to do with it. The first big move of the year was inserting T.J. Lang into the left guard position as a starter, where he played just about all of the offensive snaps. After a couple missteps to begin the season, Lang has proven to be a significant upgrade over Daryn Colledge, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals.
The most important shift, though, was at the left tackle spot. Chad Clifton, recently released by Green Bay, was a big cornerstone of the offensive line in 2010 (and of course for many years prior). His injury against the Falcons in Week 5 shook up the offensive line in a big way. Marshall Newhouse, who was then filling in at right tackle for the injured Bryan Bulaga, slid over to left tackle while first round draft pick Derek Sherrod filled in the hole.
Bulaga started the next week against St. Louis, but Newhouse remained at left tackle and became the starter for the remainder of the regular season.
Having that much shifting around take place with the tackle positions is often a recipe for disaster, yet somehow the Packers were able to fight through it. Marshall Newhouse, though not without flaws, performed admirably at left tackle. And that, perhaps, is why offensive line coach James Campen seems to be getting a passing grade from fans this year.
Whether it’s being more lenient in the face of injuries, or giving credit for having Newhouse ready to take over, Campen wasn’t nearly on the hot seat as much as in previous years.
All that said, these two coaches are still under the microscope. Any misstep by them or their units will surely open the floodgates for past failures to come screaming back into our memories.
Truth be told, it could be something as simple as a lack of improvement. If there’s no noticeable improvement by Tim Masthay or Randall Cobb in the punting game, there will surely be some disappointment in falling short of their potential. Likewise, if Aaron Rodgers starts getting sacked like he was in 2009, then there’s no telling what fuming curses will be spewed at Coach Campen by the fans.
But for now, we must give credit where credit is due. Shawn Slocum and James Campen have silenced the critics for at least one year, and for good reason. Special teams has been perhaps the most improved unit in 2011, and the offensive line was able to manage the loss of one of its best players.
Slocum and Campen get the benefit of the doubt going into 2012, but as with every player, coach, and GM, they still must earn their worth from year to year.——————Follow @ChadToporski