Special Teams Could Be What Gets the Packers to the Super Bowl

Micah Hyde runs one back against the Minnesota Vikings.

It is no secret that the Green Bay Packers have been one of the best teams in the NFL and a perennial playoff team over the last six seasons. It is also no secret that the Packers’ special teams have been horrendous over that period of time.

Under coach McCarthy the special teams has appeared to be an afterthought. The kick and punt return games have been a mix of two good returners and seemingly throws of a dart at a board with a list of skill position players on it.

For all the good there was with Randall Cobb in the return game in 2011 and Micah Hyde in the punt return game in 2013 and 2014, there have been plenty of headaches with the likes of Jordy Nelson and Tramon Williams being thrown out there. All of that culminated with the disaster that was DuJuan Harris returning kicks last season.

 

The only notable standout seasons among the kickers, punters, and returners the last six years:

In 2011 Randall Cobb was second in the NFL among qualified kick returners with an average of 27.7 yards per return. It was by far and away the best return average of any Packers kick returner since 2009.

Cobb was also the seventh best punt returner in the league in 2011 with an average of 11.3 yards per return. That season he tacked on one touchdown using both the kick and punt returns.

 

Micah Hyde has been a wonderful revelation in the punt return game. In his first season had the fifth highest punt return average in the league at 12.3 yards per return including bringing one back for a touchdown.

In 2014 Hyde blew up with a an average of 15.8 yards per return, including two touchdowns. He fell a few returns short of qualifying for the league lead, but had he qualified he would have been the far and away number one punt returner, the next closest would have been Sproles at 13.0 yards per return. That gap between Hyde and Sproles is the same size as the gap between Sproles and the 9th place returner.

 

That’s it. Randall Cobb in 2011 and Micah Hyde returning punts the last two seasons are the only standout performances for the special teams in the last six seasons. Everything else has been mediocre at best, in a lot of cases the performances have been very poor.

The best Mason Crosby has ever ranked in a season in terms of kicking accuracy is 10th in the league, which was in 2011. In fact he has been in the bottom 10 of the league in four of the past six seasons including the dreadful season that saw him finish dead last in the NFL in 2012.

Packers punting have not fared any better. The Packer punters have been in the bottom half of the league in net punt average in each of the last six seasons. Only once did they even rank above 21st in the league and twice have they been in the bottom three of the league.

I am a firm believer that special teams is a very underrated part of the team and it is something you need to be sound in. Even with a solid defense and a good offense, it gets tough to consistently overcome poor special teams play.

Making field goals when the opportunity arises and winning the field position battle by burying teams deep in their own territory and and giving yourself good starting field position are crucial things to do in a game. Not to mention the game-changing ability of an elite kick returner potentially bringing one to the house.

I think a big part of this season is going to come down to come down to how well the Packers perform on special teams.

A big part of this unit this year is going to lie on the shoulders of Ty Montgomery. He was considered one of the best returners in the draft and impressed coaches during the rookie camp last weekend with his quickness. Even if he never catches a pass on offense, he could have the biggest impact of any rookie this season, he can be a game changer.

The other big change for this season is that Ron Zook is now running the show in place of Shawn Slocum. Slocum was always a hot button issue among Packer fans and rightfully so, the special teams were typically very poor under him.

It will be interesting to see what changes Zook makes this year, but from what little I have heard him say, it doesn’t sound like he’s looking to change much. I admittedly do not know much about Zook as a special teams coach, but we’ll see how it goes.

The good thing about special teams is that small details typically make a huge difference so major changes aren’t a necessity to create a large change… I’m just not confident he will be the man to make them.

Making Zook the head special teams coach just feels like a hire by McCarthy because he was comfortable with him. Slocum made it as long as he did in large part due to his familiarity with McCarthy and how he runs his team, especially in camp. Not because of his ability to coach the special teams.

While Crosby has typically been in the bottom half of the league in terms of accuracy, part of that is due to kicking in a cold, outdoor environment. Even if he is in the bottom half of the league, he can make big kicks and was clutch last season.

If Zook can keep Crosby at the same level he was last season and Hyde continues to do what he does, getting the punt game to mediocrity doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. That leaves Montgomery as the X factor to the Packers potentially having a good to very good special teams unit and that may be a crucial part to getting over the hump and making it back to the Super Bowl.

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Mike Reuter lives in the Twin Cities and is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas. He is a mobile tech enthusiast, a 19 year Gopher Football season ticket holder and a huge Packers fan. Mike is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @uofmike.

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  • http://www.lyrictrumpet.com Bearmeat

    You make good points Mike. I’m especially glad to read your point about cold weather. Do you notice that in the Dallas Morning News ranks, every year the top 10 has 1 or 2 outliers from cold weather/outdoor teams? The remaining 8 or 9 are warm and sunny and/or a domed team. It makes a big difference in kicking the ball.

    I’m not saying the Packers kicking game shouldn’t be better (especially punting last year ugh..), because it can and should. But Crosby was pretty good last year. And Hyde.

    IF GB can make their kickoff return, FG protection and punt coverage teams better next year, that’d be a HUGE win. I’d settle for top half of the league. Not bad in the NFLs coldest city.

    • http://allgbp.com/ Thegreatreynoldo

      Yup. Add coverage issues to the discussion.

    • MikeReuter

      The problem with that is most of the game aren’t played in cold, terrible conditions.

      The weather is typically pretty decent until December and even then it may not be that bad. There’s only 8 home games a year, which means typically only 2 games or so are going to be in December.

      That being said, I think Crosby was pretty damn good last year, I’ll take that performance every year. The level of kicking has improved in the NFL though to the point where if Crosby slips from what he did last year, his performance would start to be considered poor.

      If Crosby can duplicate his season from last year, I don’t think many people would be upset by that. I know I wouldn’t.

      Crosby and Hyde definitely weren’t the issue last year though, everything else was.

  • Since ’61

    There is no question that Special Teams need to improve for the Packers in 2015. They were bad, really bad in 2014. In some of the other previous seasons I believe that the STs suffered due to the numerous injuries the Packer dealt with causing a revolving door of ST players. But in 2014 that was not the case and they had a terrible season. In addition to improvements in the KO return game the Packers need to effectively block for their PATs, FGs and Punt attempts. 6 or 7 blocked kicks during a season is unacceptable and needs to be corrected. Overall I would say that the Packers coverage on punts and kickoffs is good but not great and could be improved. There are other examples where more discipline is required such as the fake FG by Seattle in the NFC title game, which had at least 2 missed assignments, and of course the fatal onside kick with Bostic. Bostic may be gone but who knows who his replacement will be and what they will do. Special Teams need a lot of work at some very basic levels. Unlike our defense which basically needs better players at ILB and DL, our Special Teams need to start over from the basics, as in “Gentlemen, this is a football”. The positive side is that there is no where to go but up, I hope. Thanks, Since ’61

    • http://allgbp.com/ Thegreatreynoldo

      Well said. Still chuckling.

    • dobber

      I think you hit on part of this, but I’ll add it here. CLUTCH plays will go a long way toward getting this team to the SB. Bostick’s botched onside kick coverage…Micah Hyde getting that INT vs. San Fran, or HHCD making that INT or pass breakup on the 2-pt vs. Seattle…when was the last time the Packers had that guy who found a way to get that key sack in a clutch situation (Reggie White?)? Kudos to the Rodgers/Cobb connection against the Bears year before last, but they need to find a more of those guys who find a way to make that key play when it absolutely needs to happen.

  • packett

    Glad you wrote this up. I’ve read several places that perhaps all of the first 3 picks (maybe 4) are dedicated to skills especially for the ST. That would be a pretty impressive commitment. And, if true, that is pretty gutsy drafting. I suppose if ST can gain 10 yards on either side (+ 10 receiving, and -10 on kicking) that has to equate in touchdown per game, and prevent a touchdown per game. Would there be any such stats? I’m way too lazy to do more than this raw speculation.

  • Taryn Miller

    A nice easy read Mike and if I may…..

    “Special Teams could be what get the Packers to the Super Bowl”

    Many a team knows or should know it’s biggest flaw and the Packers knew it was Special Teams play and it grew as the season wore on and then ultimately self allowed it to bite them in their arses.

    Yes,many will continue to look upon Bostic as the main goat while offering some disdain for the unit overall but this team ‘should’ have gone to the SB in spite of the SPT’s play and the blunder of Bostic or the failure of B.Jones and Slocum to be easily duped on the fake FG needs to still take a backseat to what really kept the Packers ‘out’ of the SB…the failure of the offense to inflict deeper the dagger and the successful attempt of the Packer defense,opens door to Capers hate, to pull out part of the dagger still emerged out of the Seahawks heart and placing life support in their hands.

    The play of SPT’s was of a most sour note and yet the Packers via a play caller who is afraid to twist the dagger for fear of losing a nice guy image and placing yet another opportunity,undeserved,into the hands of his friend Slocum in hope of achieving redemption.

    Many boast the high level of the offense and average defense,though suspect,should never ever allow the game to be placed into the hands of the SPT’s unit as like in any weekly game, the hands of the Referees. :)

    • MikeReuter

      I wasn’t actually referencing the NFCCG. Yes, that is pretty much point and case for how bad special teams can ruin your season with one bad game though.

  • Chad Lundberg

    I remember when the Special Teams were an all out DISASTER in the 2010 season. No one could return, punt or kick. Then suddenly when the playoffs came around, the special teams started playing up to snuff. For example, to me it felt like Tim Masthay alone completely took Devin Hester out of the equation, imo that was a very large factor in that game.

    It’s actually very nice to see MM and TT put a new emphasis on this. Drafting players, changing the coach, and if I remember correctly, MM did say something about promising they will be better this year. Surely everyone here remembers what he said about the run game in 2013 and the defense just last year?

    My only concern is if the new ST’s coordinator is actually qualified for the position, not just another guy that MM hired simply because they have some history.

  • marpag

    Last year’s special teams were about as sloppy as the grammar and punctuation in this article.

    “Since 61” has suggested that the Packer special teams need to go back to the basics, as in, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

    That sounds like good advice for authors, too: “Gentlemen, this is a sentence.”

    • Taryn Miller

      Please place these where applicable to ease your pain.
      ,,, …. //// ??? !!! ::: ;;; etc.

    • TedTomsin

      Seriously?

    • MikeReuter

      Thanks man!

  • TedTomsin

    Nice article on the special teams and I agree but I would very much appreciate it if we had more articles on Ted Thompson. I find them to be few and far between.
    Ted

    • http://www.lyrictrumpet.com Bearmeat

      lol. dude is funny…

  • GBPDAN

    Special teams is a big part of the game and improving in this area will definitely help reach the SB, but, Seattle and Dallas are the 2 main teams in the way of the Packers getting through the NFC to reach the SB. Lynch had 160 yards rushing on us, mostly in crunch time. Dallas has the Oline to support a good running game no matter who’s caring the ball, especially after picking up Collins. Until I’m convinced that the soft belly ,of the middle of our D, is fixed, I’m going to worry. This was just as big of a problem. The Packers were also able to concentrate on Lynch more because Seattle didn’t have great receivers, now they have Jimmy Graham

    • TedTomsin

      GBPDan, you have to trust me on this, better yet trust Ted. Mike Pennel is going to be much much improved. The biggest guy on the team last year and I doubt he’s going to shink. B.J Raji compared him to the young once dominating Albert Haynesworth. You have Pennel, Raji, Daniels and Guion. They will not be soft in the middle. They will be a strength this year as will middle linebacker. Quit worrying.
      Ted

      • GBPDAN

        I hope so, i really hope you’re right

    • MikeReuter

      I’m not saying that special teams is the only issue with this team, but being top 10 in special teams would go a long way towards helping to mask some of the other issues instead of being bottom 10.

  • Razer

    Let’s put the “special” back in Special Teams!

  • Archie

    Is Zook the guy that will turn things around on ST? I think you answered your own question when you said, “Making Zook the head special teams coach just feels like a hire by McCarthy because he was comfortable with him.” I agree 100% with your feeling in this regard. So I do NOT expect the GBP’s ST will be significantly better this year than they have been. In fact, I would go so far to say that as long as TT/MM are joined at the hip in GB, and AROD remains our QB, this is the type of team we will always be – a top passing team that can also run the ball but with a D and ST that are perennially weak.

    • Taryn Miller

      “In fact, I would go so far to say that as long as TT/MM are joined at the hip in GB, and AROD remains our QB, this is the type of team we will always be – a top passing team that can also run the ball but with a D and ST that are perennially weak.”

      Hard to argue this point as history has aided it’s thinking/belief but one must accept a fault to move forward and allow a correction.MM has done so with handing over play calling which is a willing and huge hit to his ego and the firing of friend Slocum and placing more personal interest in the area of SPT’s.

      TT’s player acquisition via draft and lack of via FA will likely never change while in GB and if went elsewhere would be the reason for his hiring by another.

      I have often disagreed with players selected but cannot argue TT gets us the needed(3) two contract deserving players each year in the draft.We just need to stop tripping over our own feet when a single trip erases the trip we all endeavor for…the city hosting the SB. :)

  • Big T

    I thought Slocum and Zook were a two headed monster coaching special teams last year. So cutting off one of the heads is gonna make it better this year? Sounds like TT’s reasoning. I feel we will have better special teams this year despite the coaching. More talent there, it has to be better.

    • TedTomsin

      Have to be honest here and I hear you Big T. I hate Zook and I hate Slocum. Don’t know Zook but I hate him simply because of his connections with Slocum and the onside kick failure that will haunt me for my remaining short life here on Earth.
      I wish MM would have hired someone from some other place that isn’t connected with Bostick and Slocum. Because of that I already have my slogan ready to go for the painted fence outside 1265 for next year…
      “Give the Hook To Zook”

  • Mojo

    Never understand why so many fans shrug off the importance of ST’s and yards you can gain or lose because of them. In a contradiction of terms, they’re the silent “explosive’ play yards, that in the end often decide a game.

    For example, if your team is consistently letting the opponent near the 30 on KO’s but you average near the 20, that 10 yard difference adds up in a hurry. Same for net punt yardage. I think most teams consider a play “explosive” if it goes over 20 yards or more. If you get six or seven in a game you’re doing well. But if you’re losing 10 yards per KO or punt to your opponent it’s like you’re giving most back. And this doesn’t even consider blocked kicks, poor FG percentages or missed assignments. The Packers have had their moments in the recent past, but overall, have given way more than taken. http://www.dallasnews.com/sports/dallas-cowboys/headlines/20150123-chip-kelly-s-commitment-helps-eagles-soar-to-first-in-sportsday-s-annual-nfl-special-teams-rankings.ece

    Crosby’s been better since getting challenged a while back. What would be interesting to me is if someone could dig out what Crosby’s FG percentage is vs his opponents from within the games they are both playing over time. This would give me a much better indication of how much the weather is affecting his overall stats versus the league. Also, would like to know what his average KO distance and hang-time versus opponents in the same games played are. I suspect Crosby wouldn’t look that good. Could be why our coverage units have been mediocre.

    And I can’t leave the Ginger Wolverine out. He was terrible last year in just about every phase of punting. Hoping it’s an aberration and not a trend.

    From coaching to personnel the changes the Packers are making are well worth the gamble.

    • barutanseijin

      I went through the records to compare Crosby and rival kickers a while back. I posted it on one of the Packer sites, but I don’t remember which one. My idea was to debunk the argument that Crosby is decent if you account for a Lambeau handicap. Basically, the other guys kick better at Lambeau than Crosby. They also outdo him at other stadiums. Robbie Gould kicks his butt in Green Bay and Chicago. Pun intended. Sorry.

      Mind you I did this a while back, and Crosby has improved his fg percentage somewhat since. Part of that is because MM is smarter with him than he used to be.

      Kick off stats are harder to get at, but for a guy with a supposedly big leg, Crosby doesn’t get as many touchbacks as you’d think.

    • TedTomsin

      Mojo, I don’t think the fans were shrugging off the importance of special teams. I think it was Mike McCarthy that didn’t pay attention to it as much as he should and it bit him in the ass in Seattle. It’s why he gave up the play calling. He has finally seen the light. What we will never now is why he kept on Slocum for all those years.
      Ted

    • MikeReuter

      Completely agree in terms of the “hidden yards” and such in special teams. I’ll actually have a stats based piece closer to camp on how important that is.

    • http://allgbp.com/ Thegreatreynoldo

      Regarding your request for a direct comparison between Crosby and the opposing kicker, here is my post on 7/14/14 at Cheesehead and Jersey Al’s post:

      “My conclusion is that [i.e.: making 90% of one’s field goals] would be a great season that only one packer kicker has managed: Jan Stenerud. I read Jersey Al’s post and used his link to go back and read his article. The metrics Jersey Al used were interesting, but picking out the 9 other cold, windy NFL cities and comparing Crosby to their kickers seems difficult, since some did not consider NY, NE, and other sites to be as cold and/or windy as Lambeau. Below is a breakdown of Crosby’s career field goals statistics versus the stats of the opposing kicker in those same games (in the 2nd set of numbers). Stats for Crosby come from ESPN and NFL.com and for his opposing kicker from ESPN.

      ATT/M % 1-19 20-29 20-39 40-49 50+
      185/235 78.7% 6/6 58/60 58/67 44/62 19/40
      xxxxxxxxxxxxx 100 96.7% 86.6% 71.0% 47.5%

      158/190 83.7% 2/2 45/45 49/55 43/59 19/29
      xxxxxxxxxxxxx 100 100 89.1% 72.9% 65.5%

      I note that Crosby made 12 of 14 field goals in the post season (85.7%), including 0/2 from 50+ yards. He had 5 attempts blocked for a 2.1% average blocked, but all 5 were blocked btw 2007 and 2010. (I am addressing one commenter to Jersey Al’s 2011 article who noted that Crosby’s block rate – at the time 4.7% – was very high compared to the NFL’s average of 1.2%. I haven’t been able to verify the 1.2% figure cited by that commenter. It seems to have evened out quite a lot over time with no blocks in 2011, 2012, or 2013).

      My own conclusion is that Crosby is average (arguably a trifle below average) but has a strong leg. I base the latter on the notion that Crosby is asked to kick more field goals from 30-39, 40-49 and 50+ by a significant amount. I will not address kickoffs because I can find no stats on hang time, and there is the directional kicking and cold weather arguments. I can’t find any stats on Crosby’s % of made field goals to tie or win a game. Crosby has been rock steady in the postseason. Crosby ranks as the 16th highest paid kicker in the NFL, but with a very low amount guaranteed (10.9%). I conclude that he is being paid about what he is worth.”

      OR JERSEY AL’S POST ON CHEESEHEADTV 7-14-14:

      STATS: From an article I wrote in 2011:

      I chose teams from 9 other cold weather cities with dome-less stadiums (PHIL, NYJ, NYG, CHI, CLE, BUF, CIN, PIT, NE). Where did Crosby’s FG % rank when compared to these kickers?

      2007: 9th out of 10
      2008: 9th out of 10
      2009: Tied for 9th/10th
      2010: 6th out of 10

      So, when compared to other kickers playing in cold weather, he still comes out near the bottom. We can now say, whatever the typical weather conditions, Crosby is ALWAYS near the bottom in FG %.

      http://jerseyal.com/2011/08/08/debunking-the-myths-about-green-bay-packe

      Link to Cheesehead article:
      http://cheeseheadtv.com/blog/packers-k-mason-crosby-off-incentivized-contract-does-he-lack-motivation

  • Tundraboy

    There’s a novel thought, having special teams that are an asset could help win games!! Let’s hope. Can’t get any worse.

  • Jeff

    This draft was solely for special teams IMO, every player taken will fill a role, the corners will replace Bush who got slow, Randall is a gunner and so is Rollins then they got Backman and Ripkowski who are big and fast to replace Jones and Hawk, and to top it off McCarthy will have a hand in running it this year so ST will be a strong point now. Maybe this is the boost to take them over the hump but only time will tell.

  • montana83

    When Favre and Co beat the Patriots in the 1997 Super Bowl anyone remember the MVP of the game?
    Offensive Player – Nope
    Defensive Player – Nope
    ST Player – Yup – Desmond Howard who killed NE with his returns. Only time a ST player was the MVP of the SB – before or since.

  • David Bartel

    Sure would have helped last year. As it seems that this draft class is entirely focused on replacing old or departed players on ST (minus Hyde/Cobb) it better.