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Mason Crosby Can't Save Packers' Otherwise Lousy Special Teams

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Mason Crosby Can't Save Packers' Otherwise Lousy Special Teams

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 zachkruse2@gmail.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: on Comments (22) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Phatgzus's picture

58 players over the course of the season-holy $#!+!

Point Packer's picture

Yeah, that's a lot. Love to hear what the overall NFL average was.

jeremy's picture

Considering that exceeds the gameday roster limit by 12 guys, and the total roster size by 5 guys, placing 20th with that mess seems like a huge success.

lebowski's picture

I am so tired of Slocum's Slackers

TommyG's picture

Which ones in particular? a turnover of 58 players prevents any sort of consistency or success.

lebowski's picture

the ones that can't block or tackle… which is probably 53 of them.

I bleed Green More's picture

It is the opposite of Hogans Heros.

JG's picture

ST have generally been poor since MM took over. Mike Stock couldn't figure it out, neither can Slocum. Same story every year.

Is it just me, or does it often throughout Slocum's tenure feel as though the Packers offense makes big play in tough spot immediately followed by a big return by the opponent's ST, putting the Packers D in a worse position.

Would love to see the ST rankings/trends under MM(Stock and Slocum). There are several seasons of evidence to paint a picture, not just 2013.

JG's picture

From JerseyAl.com

Green Bay was better than only three teams in terms of average kick return yardage surrendered (25.9 yards).

As far as average punt return yards given up, the Packers were third-worst (13.1 yards) behind only the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts.

Chicago Packer Fan!'s picture

The special teams coverage has been back going back to the super bowl team. Slocumn's unit cost them the Atlanta game that year and should have been fired.

There is no reason he should still have a job. Yes, Mason had a great year but with this coverage it kills teams!

We need a new guy!

NoWayJose's picture

Wow. I had no idea it was that bad. They've got a lot of work to do - wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't under Slocum either.

Cobb's days returning kicks have to be over. Not only is there the obvious risks, but it just seems that players' effectiveness as a returner declines as their star rises in other positions. You loose the hunger that a young player or player whose only meal ticket is returning has.

Hank Scorpio's picture

It's been a week since the season ended. I don't think anyone will be losing their job. Some assistants may walk away to another opportunity but I doubt that would be Slocum.

McCarthy will use the revolving door of players excuse to keep Slocum. I'm not so sure he'd be wrong to do so.

But you're right. They have a lot work to do. Which is a recurring them with STs in the offseason. So I'm not so sure McCarthy is right to use an excuse to keep Slocum, either.

Phatgzus's picture

His teams were ranked 11th and 12th last year, I'd be surprised if he was gone.

Phatgzus's picture

Percy Harvin, Desean Jackson, and Gale Sayers would disagree.

NoWayJose's picture

Well, in the interest of debate:

Percy Harvin - didn't exactly return kicks succesfully this year and it's hard to see him doing it going foward.

DeSean - doesn't return anymore does he?

Gale Sayers - that's a different era.

I'm sure there's some examples that go against this, but I think they are few and far between.

Horse's picture

Devastated by injuries and an ever changing cast. Shake it off. I don't care if Slocum or someone else at least as good or mediocre or whatever is there. But firing coaches because fans are upset when 58 players had to be used seems kind of pointless.

Point Packer's picture

I generally agree, though one could make a case that Ross's success in Detroit was due to poor Special Teams coaching. Then again, one could make a strong case the other way too. Either way, I don't buy the argument "he wanted out." This is the NFL, a fringe player (not anymore) may not get another chance.

He clearly lacked confidence with the Pack.

I don't know what I am saying. Clearly.

Phatgzus's picture

He was good in his first year, I think he just lost confidence, and in the wilderness that is the NFL that's often a death sentence; he's lucky a needy pride took him in and gave him a home.

Phatgzus's picture

And you already said that...

Bibbon Hazel's picture

They suck!

brooklynpackman's picture

Obviously something needs to be done. Too many excuses all the time for too many coaches. MM needs to take a dose of reality medicine. I long for the days when ST and our D were feared, now
mediocre seems to be the acceptable performance. Too many teams have moved ahead of us in the front office and with their coaching staffs. I hope MM and TT hear the reasonable comments made by all devoted fans.

Barry's picture

It's not 58 players that are incompetent.....it's the ST coach.....duh?

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