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McCarthy promises to improve Packers’ punting, coverage teams

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Bob McGinn
August 3, 2010
— Team-building, at least when it comes to special teams, normally hasn’t been a major priority in Green Bay since Ron Wolf came to town in 1992.

After striking out on Terrell Buckley, the Packers all but ruled out drafting cornerbacks standing 5 feet 10 inches or less.


There also haven’t been many little running backs or wide receivers on the Packers’ roster in the last 10 to 15 years. As the thinking goes, those diminutive cornerbacks, running backs and wide receivers would be worthless on slow, muddy fields.


The Packers need not be reminded that the best pool of talent for the valuable job of return specialist is that very group of players. Desmond Howard, even Allen Rossum, proved that 10 to 15 years ago.


Another type of player that hasn’t been seen in Green Bay for years is the so-called “special teams ace.” You know, people like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Larry Izzo, Fred McAfee, Bennie Thompson and Larry Whigham, players who made a career out of excelling on special teams but played a position only in event of emergency.


No matter the architect—Wolf, Mike Sherman or Ted Thompson—the Packers basically have turned up their noses at that guy.


Tracy White took it upon himself to lead the Packers’ special teams for 2 1/2 years, and from 2006 to October 2008 he was the best they had.


But then the Packers cut White in Week 6 of 2008, and their units went kaput. A great special-teamer for the Eagles over the last year and a half, White had been available since March until the Eagles re-signed him Saturday.


No one feels the heat being generated to pick it up on special teams more than Shawn Slocum, who assisted Mike Stock from 2006-’08 before being promoted to coordinator last year.


“We’ve got to have better overall performance on special teams,” Slocum said. “We cannot hurt our football team with the number of penalties we had.”


Mike McCarthy and Thompson have taken it a step further. Instead of firing Slocum, they reassigned his assistant, Curtis Fuller, and promoted Chad Morton to help out.


In early March, the pair bid farewell to Jeremy Kapinos, the National Football League’s worst punter in 2009, although their roster included just one free-agent punter at the time.


And then McCarthy revamped his practice schedule to include longer periods and more high-tech drills for special teams, an area described last week by the coach as an “extreme negative.”


Like all coaches, Slocum pays close attention to the annual rankings of overall special-teams performance compiled by the Dallas Morning News.


Those rankings showed the Packers at No. 31, five slots worse than in the ’08 season after which McCarthy essentially asked Stock to retire.


Interestingly, Super Bowl runner-up Indianapolis was No. 28 and Super Bowl champion New Orleans was No. 29. The top three special-teams units in ’09 were Cleveland (5-11), Tampa Bay (3-13) and Buffalo (6-10).


“You look at the two Super Bowl teams last year and look at their rankings,” said Slocum. “There are some teams out there that stockpile returners and have great special-teams cover guys, and they win about four games a year. I’d rather have a chance to play in the Super Bowl.


“Let me say this. As a special-teams coach in the NFL you have a challenge. You get a 53-man roster. We’ve got a philosophy here that we’re going to get the best football players we can at each offensive and defensive position. Then we take those guys and let them play special teams.”


Based on the Morning News rankings, the McCarthy Packers rank 29th in special-teams performance since 2006; Green Bay is 31st if you consider the last five years.


Now guess who ranks dead last in special teams since 2005. That would be the Colts, whose 65-15 record rates as the NFL’s finest over the period.


Perhaps the model for how to handle special teams is Chicago, a team that has ranked No. 3 in special-teams performance under Dave Toub since ’05 and also has won 47 games, five more than Green Bay.


The previous two times the Packers had lousy special teams two years in a row were 1994-’95 and 2005-’06. Driven by the irrepressible Howard, they improved to seventh in ’96 and won the Super Bowl. Sparked by exceptional coverage teams, a solid return game and Jon Ryan’s sharp punting, Green Bay tied for seventh in ’07 and went 13-3.


Now McCarthy and others in the organization are up on the bit demanding a similar turnaround.


“We will be better at fundamentals on special teams,” McCarthy said. “(Penalties) is something we will correct this year.”


Punting ruined the unit last year. Not only did Kapinos have dismal hang time (4.02-second average), he also had a glaring lack of touch and feel. The decision by Thompson and McCarthy to ax Ryan on the eve of ’08 continues to reverberate.


The Packers weren’t sold on veterans Josh Bidwell and Hunter Smith, and with memories of the wasted third-round pick used for B.J. Sander in ’04 they elected not to draft a punter as highly (fifth round) as would have been necessary.


Only about eight teams have two punters on their 80-man rosters, and Green Bay is one of them. The Packers seem satisfied with free agents Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay, and after competing since mid-March it would seem Bryan is the one to beat.


Bryan, a former Australian Rules player who is brand-new to American football, rates the early edge because his leg strength and get-off times seem equal if not better than Masthay’s and his ability to work inside the 20 clearly looks better.


Because of his background, Bryan has said he can drop-punt short boots with accuracy just about every time.


“Chris Bryan has been a professional athlete, he’s 28 and has a short stride, which I think is important, Slocum said. “With our offense, we’re going to have a lot of punts toward midfield. He’s (great) inside the 20.”


Masthay spent a few months with Indianapolis last spring and summer, and although Colts special-teams coach Ray Rychleski liked Masthay’s potential, he also said his get-off times were slow.


Masthay has kicked field goals and kicked off for three years at Kentucky, which provides a security blanket should Mason Crosby go down. At least he practiced as a holder in college, which might make him a more secure partner for Crosby.


“(We) evaluated all the available punters and feel good about what we have,” Slocum said.


Crosby’s field-goal accuracy through three seasons ranks in the bottom 25% of the NFL. His woes from the right hash mark are legitimate.


Still, the Packers refuse to turn their backs on Crosby’s obvious talents. He can power field goals from 60 yards. His kickoffs are sensational. He’s level-headed and doesn’t look for excuses.


“If you make a change, you might not always get better,” said Slocum. “He worked on his core strength in the off-season and has been hitting his kickoffs farther and not having to expend as much energy on field goals.”


The return game remains a weakness. Slocum has said that his preferred returner is Will Blackmon even though he hasn’t been effective since 2008, has added five pounds (to 215) for his move to safety and is iffy to make the squad.


Tramon Williams has had more than his share of impressive moments as a dual returner, but most teams don’t like exposing a top cornerback. Jordy Nelson is average. Blazing speed makes rookie cornerback Sam Shields a fascinating possibility, but first he must prove wrong all those scouting reports saying he has hard hands and then make the team.


Slocum would prefer the kickoff returner to be a running back. James Starks is the obvious candidate, but he’s out indefinitely with a pulled hamstring.



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