Not even the comeback story of Mason Crosby could save the Green Bay Packers from possessing one of the NFL's worst special teams units in 2013.
A year after missing 12 of 33 kicks for a career-worst percentage of 63.6, Crosby beat out two August challengers and then made good on an incentive-laden contract by splitting the uprights 35 times in 39 tries, including the postseason. His regular season conversion rate of 89.2 percent was the best of Crosby's seven-year career.
He eventually earned every penny of a restructured contract wisely tied directly to his kicking performance. Crosby hit both roster bonuses, in Week 5 and 10, plus the 85-percent high-water mark needed to make back all $2.4 million of his original salary.
If only Ted Thompson and Shawn Slocum could contractually coax better out of their entire special teams unit.
Overall, the Packers placed 20th out of 32 NFL teams in the special teams rankings designed and produced by the Dallas Morning News. Among the 12 playoff teams in 2013, only the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos ranked lower than Green Bay.
At Pro Football Focus, the Packers ranked 30th in overall special teams grade.
Crosby's superlative accuracy and volume could only do so much to steady Green Bay. He made the fifth-most field goals and had just four misses. Twice he connected on kicks of 57 yards, all 21 of his attempts inside 40 yards were good and two of his four misses came from 52 yards or longer.
Struggles over so many other aspects of special teams killed the Packers in the third and less sexy area of the game.
Shoddy coverage on both punts and kicks allowed opposing teams to have an average starting field position of the 25.6-yard line, worst in the NFL. The Packers allowed 26.0 yards per kickoff return—their worst mark in over 60 years—and 13.1 yards per punt return. Both figures ranked 29th in 2013.
Green Bay also gave up a kick or punt return of at least 30 yards in 12 of 16 games, and six times an opponent had a return of at least 40 yards.
Tim Masthay finished 21st in net punting average and 25th in punts downed inside the 20-yard line. But he was otherwise dependable in holding up his end of the punting equation, and Slocum noted several cold weather games at the end of the season effected his final placement in the punting rankings.
Masthay was swiftly replaced on primary kickoff duty when Cordarrelle Patterson raced 109 yards for a score in Week 8. He proved to have a big leg—with 17 touchbacks over 34 kickoffs and an average distance of 70.1 yards—but the Packers decided to go with Crosby's directional prowess.
Slocum had ample reason to make the switch. On average, opponents were starting at the 26.9-yard line with Masthay kicking off. That eventually finished as the worst in the NFL among those with at least 10 kickoffs.
Crosby wasn't considerably better. A whopping 73.7 percent of Crosby's kickoffs were returned, second highest in the NFL behind only Nick Folk. His average distance (63.2 yards) ranked 28th, and opponents had an average starting field position of the 24.6-yard line, second worst behind only Masthay.
The Packers struggled on the opposite end of the spectrum, too.
The team averaged just 20.3 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 30th. Rookie Micah Hyde (24.1 yards per return) eventually improved the unit, but 10 dreadful returns from Jeremy Ross and Johnathan Franklin early on—averaging just 15.7 yards—put the Packers in a hole it couldn't recover from.
It actually took the Packers a grand total of 13 weeks and 12 games to produce a kick return over 30 yards. Hyde's 70-yard scamper against the Pittsburgh Steelers finished as the team's long of the season.
Against the 49ers in the Wild Card round, the Packers returned five kicks—including four from Randall Cobb—but failed to muster a return longer than 23 yards.
If there was a saving grace in the return game, it came from Hyde fielding punts.
The Packers averaged 11.3 yards on 39 returns, of which 24 came via Hyde, who took over the duties in Week 9. He averaged 12.3 yards per punt return, fifth-best in the NFL. While lacking the explosiveness of Cobb, Hyde succeeded because of excellent ball skills and a commitment to north-south running. He took a punt back 93 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings, tying for the third-longest in franchise history and the team's longest since 2007.
Cobb was sent back to return a punt eight times, returning just three and fair-catching five others. He finished with only 33 combined kick and punt return yards over six regular season games.
There were plenty of forgettable moments from Green Bay's year on special teams.
Jeremy Ross's fumbled kick return in Week 3 gave the Cincinnati Bengals an easy touchdown in a game that ended in a four-point loss. John Kuhn mistakingly touched a blocked punt in Baltimore that extended a Ravens drive. A week later, the Cleveland Browns busted two kick returns of over 50 yards (56, 86) that set up scores. Patterson nearly blew the top off the Metrodome by returning the opening kick 109 yards for a touchdown, tying the NFL record. The Falcons executed a fake punt when the punter completed a 30-yard pass. Nick Perry jumped offsides on a late field goal attempt from the Steelers, giving Pittsburgh a critical first down.
Along the way, the Packers' special teams committed 17 penalties and missed 27 tackles. For comparison's sake, consider that Green Bay missed a grand total of 26 special teams tackles in 2012 (11) and 2011 (15) combined.
The mistakes were season-spanning and at times devastating. But they were not without a reasonable explanation.
According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, the injury-plagued Packers used 58 different players on special teams over 17 games in 2013. That's a striking variation of players that likely made it difficult for Slocum's units—especially in covering kicks—to become a cohesive group.
Still, most of the core members of the Packers special teams, including Jarrett Bush, John Kuhn, Jamari Lattimore, Davon House and Ryan Taylor, remained healthy for the majority of 2013. But it still takes 11 players working in unison on every punt and kick to play effective special teams.
"At times we did a good job adjusting, at times we didn't do such a good job of adjusting," Slocum said of the injuries. "You have to be able to adjust."
While Crosby finally adjusted to his evolving situation, the rest of the Packers special teams did not follow suit in 2013.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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