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.——————
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.