During the much appreciated bye week Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had two specific goals: get Aaron Rodgers ailing left calf as healthy as can be and fix the special teams.
Whereas Rodgers calf has been a two game issue, the Packers special teams have been a season long crap shoot. In fact, one might argue that the Packers special teams have been a drag on performance for a number of years now.
Having both Rodgers and special teams in top shape will be a key to the Packers getting past the Dallas Cowboys this Sunday and advancing to the next game in the NFL Super Bowl XLIX Tournament.
Special Teams Issues Not New
As most Green Bay Packers fan realize, special teams problems are not a new phenomenon.
Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum has had 16 regular season games and two bye weeks to get his team right. That hasn’t happened. And for a head coach to be expending so much time and energy at this point in the season on a part of the game that should be settled has be troubling to both coaches and fans alike.
Changes in Coaching Didn’t Help
To help remedy the situation Head Coach Mike McCarthy took the unusual step of relieving Assistant Special Teams Coach Chad Morton of his duties at the end of last season. However, Special Teams Coordinator Shawn Slocum remained in charge. But according to inside sources Slocum was put on notice that improvements must be made.
To assist Slocum McCarthy hired respected coach Ron Zook to replace Morton. Zook, who McCarthy had previously worked with on the Kansas City Chiefs staff, had been a Special Teams Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late nineties. Zook is probably best known for his stint in the college ranks as the former head coach of the Florida Gators and Fighting Illini from the Big 10 Conference.
Cause for Concern
Statistically speaking there is reason for genuine concern. The Packers lead the league with seven blocked punts and kicks this season. No other team was close. That figure more than doubled what any other Packers’ team recorded in any year since at least 1990.
Rich Gosselin the highly respected pro football writer for the Dallas Morning News for a number years has published a ranking of all NFL special teams at the end of each season. Gosselin uses 22 separate statistical categories to rate and rank each of the 32 teams to determine special teams’ proficiency. In Gosselin’s 2013 year-end review the Packers ranked twentieth overall, better than only 12 teams.
Although Gosselin’s ranking are not yet out for 2014 season, the Packers are sure to be near the bottom of the league once again. For the 2014 regular season they rank 31st in kickoff coverage yards per return, number 30 in average starting point, 31st in kickoff return average and 31st in net punting.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) the Green Bay Packers Special Teams graded out the 2014 campaign with a rating of -12.4, with “0” being an ‘as expected’ grade. This is the ninth worst rating in the NFL this season. Of all of the post season qualifiers only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were eliminated from further play this past weekend, had a worse rating (-19.1).
On the other hand this week’s playoff opponent, The Dallas Cowboys, special teams rated a +28.0. That was good enough for ninth place in the entire league and fourth among this year’s playoff participants.
Positives Do Exist
Poor Special Teams play doesn’t always translate into defeats.
During the 2010 season when the Green Bay Packers Special Teams ranked 29th in Gosselin’s poll, the team overcame poor play to win the Super Bowl.
In addition the punt return game has been a pleasant surprise this year. With Micah Hyde and Randall Cobb alternating duties, the punt return team has excelled ranking a cumulative 5th in the league. Hyde in particular has been stellar. Although Hyde did not field enough punts to qualify for consideration statistically, had he done so he would have led the league in punt return average at an impressive 15.8 yards per return.
The sure-handed duo ranks as a strength of the team.
What to do?
It is tough to fix something if you don’t admit there is a problem.
Special Teams contributed to the loss at Buffalo in week 16 with a blocked field goal and a punt returned for a touchdown by the Bills. After the game McCarthy was quoted as saying, “Our special teams are going to be stressed down the stretch. We have to not only combat that but make plays ourselves.”
Give Packers Head Coach McCarthy credit for identifying the issue and declaring that a fix is needed.
As we saw in the season finale kick returning duties were switched to the explosive Randall Cobb replacing an ineffective DuJaun Harris. To shore up leaky blocking protection the extra point and field goal units were tweaked.
Expect Cobb to again return kickoffs this week and starters to man the blocking protection on Mason Crosby’s extra point and field goal attempts.
As a Green Bay Packers fan I admit to sometimes closing my eyes during punts and field goal attempts. My hope is that I won’t have to witness that one special team gaffe that will finally cost us the game. Mike McCarthy doesn’t want to see it either.
With such emphasis and public acknowledgement of their weaknesses let’s hope McCarthy gets his special teams train back on track before it crashes and derails a great season.
If he does I expect that the offensive and defensive units will do their part to defeat the Dallas Cowboys and advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Jeff Albrecht grew up just north of Green Bay and was lucky enough to attend some of the Lombardi Era classic games, like the 1962 championship and the Ice Bowl. Jeff went on to play HS football in the Green Bay area and College ball at UW - Stevens Point. Jeff is retired but still does some writing for his local paper. Jeff is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @pointerjeff .