Special teams need more improvement in 2014
GREEN BAY—Based on continuity of specialists and coaching, the Green Bay Packers should be better than they've been on special teams.
Coach Mike McCarthy has produced a Super Bowl championship, six playoff appearances and a 63.1 percent winning mark, but his special teams have never been great and too often have been substandard.
Based on The Dallas Morning News' in-depth yearly ratings of special-teams performance, Green Bay ranks 28th among the 32 teams in collective average over McCarthy's eight seasons.
Last year, the Packers slipped from 12th to 19th in the Morning News' survey. The performance earned special teams a D-plus from the Journal Sentinel, their fifth overall grade of D compared with three grades of B from 2006-'13.
“Too many explosives in coverage,” said Shawn Slocum, the special-teams coordinator. “Punt and kickoff. That's what created that number. That's got to be something we correct.”
The opponents' kickoff-return average of 26 yards was the highest against the Packers since 1948. Their punt-return mark of 13.1 was Green Bay's worst since '89.
It was a shame because kicker Mason Crosby fought back from the edge of extinction with perhaps his finest season and the return game fared better than average despite the early-season loss of Randall Cobb.
Neither Crosby, punter Tim Masthay nor long snapper Brett Goode has hit 30. In the midst of their second contracts, all three will be candidates for another extension in the not-too-distant future.
Green Bay's triumvirate begins its fifth season together having not missed a game in four straight years. Only Kansas City, with kicker Ryan Succop, punter Dustin Colquitt and one-time Packers snapper Thomas Gafford, can say the same.
Meanwhile, Slocum begins his sixth season since being promoted from assistant to the top spot in 2009, replacing Mike Stock.
Only five special-teams coordinators—Cincinnati's Darrin Simmons, the New York Giants' Tom Quinn, Atlanta's Keith Armstrong, New Orleans' Greg McMahon and Baltimore's Jerry Rosburg—have been with their current teams longer than Slocum has in Green Bay.
McCarthy did make two staff changes, firing Chad Morton after four years assisting Slocum and replacing him with a far more experienced hand in Ron Zook. McCarthy also promoted Jason Simmons to be the No. 3 man under Slocum after reassigning John Rushing.
Zook, 60, coached alongside McCarthy in New Orleans and has logged 34 years in the business, including a decade as head coach at Florida and Illinois.
Although out of coaching the past two seasons, Zook coached special teams for Pittsburgh from 1996-'98. Those Steelers teams ranked 23rd, 24th and tied for 13th in the Morning News' rankings.
“I've known Ron for a long time,” said the 49-year-old Slocum. “Got great insight. He's strong in the room with the guys. Good teacher. I've had a great (time) with him being here. It's fun to sit down and just talk football with him.
“Now, Jason Simmons is highly involved working really a lot with our perimeter guys. He played nine years in the league, so he offers good perspective. I feel good about it.”
Crosby survived a terrible intrasquad scrimmage and a stiff camp challenge from Giorgio Tavecchio last year. He went on to make a career-best 89.2 percent of his field-goal attempts.
In 2012, when Crosby ranked 35th at 63.6 percent, his average per attempt of 41.8 yards and his average per make of 38.7 reflected the large number of long boots.
Last year, Crosby faced a much shorter array of kicks (career-low 35.5 average per attempt, league-low 34.0 average per make).
“Everybody looks at the total average but Mason's got a big leg and we lean on him a lot,” Slocum said. “You take the kicks over 50 yards out of 2012 and his average isn't bad.
“2012 was a rough deal, but he came out of it at the end. He had a rough Family Night last year but from that point on he really executed during training camp and had an outstanding finish and solid year.”
For the first time, Crosby didn't kick off to start a season. Masthay averaged 71.9 yards and 3.72 seconds of hang time with 17 touchbacks in 34 kickoffs before giving way to his teammate midway through Game 7.
With the weather worsening, Crosby averaged 67.2 and 3.82 (13 touchbacks) in his 45 kickoffs for distance.
“We'll use both of them,” Slocum said. “Mason's kicking off now better than he ever has.
“Tim had some miss-hits. That's part of the process of learning how to do it and get consistent, but Tim has got a big leg.”
Masthay has improved his net average each of his four seasons after the Packers went through two painful years of Derrick Frost and Jeremy Kapinos.
An outstanding holder, Masthay's hang-time average of 4.21 was better than his first two seasons but below his 4.35 mark from '12. His directional rankings (18th inside-the-20 average, 21st in touchback average) leave room for improvement, too.
“He can increase that,” Slocum said, referring to Masthay's net. “My challenge to him is to get better.”
Goode hasn't botched a snap or missed a game in six full seasons. Last year, Masthay's athleticism and reach several times kept Goode's streak intact.
“Brett had a couple low snaps there toward the end when the weather got bad,” Slocum said. “He needs to correct that and put the ball where it's easy to catch. But Brett's a very consistent snapper.”
Slocum isn't foreclosing the use of Cobb, whose exposure on returns ended in Game 5 with a broken leg. Still, it's more likely the Packers will avail themselves of other appealing candidates.
Based on limited work in the off-season, rookie wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (punts) and running back DuJuan Harris (kickoffs) appear to be legitimate possibilities along with holdover Micah Hyde.
Abbrederis showed a knack at Wisconsin, returning 55 punts for a 10.7 average and one touchdown. He didn't return a kickoff his final two seasons but averaged 25.8 on 31 returns before that.
Barring injury, Harris is similar to Abbrederis in that his touches from scrimmage might be scarce. He averaged a scant 19.9 in 14 runbacks at Troy before bringing back 14 for Jacksonville in 2011 and averaging 22.0.
Hyde came out of left field last year to finish as one of the NFL's most successful dual returners, ranking fifth in punt returns (12.3) and 14th in kickoffs (24.1).
“He's better than I thought he was coming out,” an NFC special-teams coach said. “I don't think he'll be a great one, but I think he'll be a solid one. He's got good vision.”