Slowly, but surely, Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum's unit is on the rise.
Arguably his most impressive performance to date came in the 2012 season when his group had to overcome a dreadful season by kicker Mason Crosby, one of the worst in recent NFL history.
Taking a historical look at the performance of the Packers special teams under Slocum shows his units have gone from among the worst in the league to being in the top half of the league during his tenure.
Slocum was hired by the Packers back in 2006, but it wasn't until 2009 when he was promoted to special teams coordinator.
In his first year as coordinator, the Packers special teams were pitiful, no better than under previous coordinator Mike Stock who was essentially forced into retirement following the 2008 season.
Two of the best measuring sticks of special teams performance as a whole come from the annual rankings published by Rick Gosselin of Dallas Morning News and another set at FootballOutsiders.com.
Following the 2009 season, the Packers ranked 31 out of 32 teams in Gosselin's rankings and dead last by Football Outsiders. The Packers led the league in special teams penalties and were last in punts placed inside the 20.
Winning a Super Bowl can mask a lot of deficiencies. No one was about to get fired after taking back the Lombardi Trophy, but Slocum arguably deserved to go.
If anything, however, 2010 can be viewed as a turning point. That year marked the arrival of punter Tim Masthay, who has helped to stabilize the special team, and no longer did the Packers unit lead the league in penalties. It was in 2010 when Jarrett Bush stopped being a liability and started to become a weapon of sorts.
Finally in 2011, everything seemed to come together, and it came as a result of having some of the best specialists in the NFL.
Crosby had his best season as a professional. Mastahay had statistically the best season by a punter in franchise history. Randall Cobb emerged as one of the most dangerous returners in the game. And Brett Goode was spot on, without so much as a single errant snap.
There was very little turnover from 2011 to 2012, all those same specialists were back, so the same type of accomplishments were expected.
But it was in 2012 that Crosby crashed. His field goal percentage of 63.6 ranked last in the NFL, indeed the fifth-worst single-season performance by an NFL kicker in the past decade.
It can be argued that kicking field goals and extra points are the most important part of the special teams equation because they're the units that put points on the scoreboard, or the inverse, failing to put points on the scoreboard.
That's why the performance of the Packers special teams can be considered a positive in 2012. They still ranked 12th in the NFL by Gosselin (one spot higher than 2011) and 18th in the NFL by Football Outsiders. To be sure, they're far from being one of the league's best, but 2012 was still not a poor performance considering Crosby's deficiencies.
Masthay remained a consistent and reliable punter and Slocum's coverage units pitched in as well.
The Packers allowed only 179 yards on punt returns the entire season, which ranked third in the NFL. They forced 26 fair catches, which also ranked third in the NFL. Both are a big part of winning the hidden-yardage battle.
On kickoff returns, the Packers allowed a long return of 41 yards the entire season. Only three other teams allowed a long return that was shorter.
What the future holds is anyone's guess. The Packers brought in competition to Crosby for the first time since his rookie season in the form of street free agent Giorgio Tavecchio.
Part of what made Crosby such a disappointment was that several of his field goal misses weren't even close, erring wide of the goal posts by a wide, wide margin. That and he went from having his best year to his worst year in the span of one season.
Whether he can regain that form, or even return to merely average, will be a big part of how the Packers special teams performs in 2013.
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