One year ago, the Packers offense was good, the defense was better but the special teams was atrocious. It was part of the reason they finished with the regular season with a 10-6 record that while good, wasn’t great.
In 2011, the Packers offense is without peer, the defense has its issues but is still prolific at generating turnovers and proficient at limiting points and the special teams is having a renaissance with their specialists as the headliners. And perhaps not surprisingly, the Packers are off to an undefeated 9-0 record.
Coming into this season, the Packers have had woeful special teams for the past several years. Based upon the annual rankings compiled by the Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin––considered the gold standard in measuring special teams––the Packers finished 26th in 2008, Mike Stock’s last season before he not-so-willingly chose to retire.
His replacement, current special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, ended his first season in 2009 ranked 31st in special teams, second to last among all teams in the NFL. He had only a modest improvement in the Packers’ Super Bowl season finishing ranked 29th.
Considering the poor state of the special teams, it probably wasn’t inconceivable to imagine that Slocum would be on a short leash in 2011.
In Slocum’s defense, however, apologists might argue that the cupboard was bare when he arrived, and the special teams made progress in 2010, as small as it may have been. He was, after all, part of braintrust that selected Tim Masthay as the team’s punter a season ago, a choice that appears to have been the correct one.
General manager Ted Thompson made an effort to give Slocum better talent to work with this year. He drafted wide receiver and return specialist Randall Cobb in the second round, a pick that has already paid dividends.
While he’s already been responsible for three turnovers in nine games in 2011, Cobb has also more than made up for any fumbles or muffs with game-breaking returns.
He set an NFL-record 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints and has not looked back. Cobb currently ranks second in the NFL in kick returns with a 30.0 yard average on 20 attempts, second only to the New York Jets’ Joe McKnight.
He also ranks ninth in the NFL with an 11.1-yard average, boosted by Monday’s performance against the Minnesota Vikings in which he took a Chris Kluwe punt 80 yards for a score. Cobb will be remembered for a long time by Packers fans for the series of events that followed his electric punt return.
After muffing the next punt, which allowed the Vikings to recover and gain possession inside the Packers’ red zone and eventually score, Cobb took the ensuing kickoff 55-yards with determination visible on his face.
Thompson also added a variety of rookies, both drafted and undrafted, to comprise Slocum’s special teams coverage and return units including sixth-rounder D.J. Smith, seventh-rounder Ryan Taylor and undrafted rookies M.D. Jennings and Jamari Lattimore.
But it’s been the specialists that have really led the special teams revival in Green Bay.
In addition to adding Cobb, the Packers also decided to bring back kicker Mason Crosby on a five-year, nearly $15 million contract, a move that received its fair share of criticism at the time.
In his first four years, Crosby was largely considered an average if not below average NFL kicker in most facets of the game. His career field goal percentage was below 80% and he hadn’t converted a game-winning kick since the first game of his rookie year.
To say the Packers have gotten their money’s worth out of Crosby would be an understatement. He’s 16-of-16 on field goals this season, the only full-time kicker in the NFL perfect on the season. And he’s made 23 straight dating back to last year.
Crosby is also among the league leaders in touchbacks as he’s being allowed to just “swing away.”
After a slow start to the season, Tim Masthay is heating up as well, which seems to be his modus operandi. It wasn’t until a mid-season performance against the New York Jets a season ago for which he was named the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week that Masthay was really effective.
The same thing seems to have happened this year starting with Masthay’s Week 7 performance at the Vikings in which he punted three times for a 59.3-yard gross average and a 55.3-yard net.
That was the third best single-game performance, in terms of net average, by an NFL punter since 1976.
Coming into Monday’s game Masthay had a 49.4-yard gross average and a 40.6-yard net in the previous five games totaling 13 punts.
The Packers may have allowed a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by the Saint’s Darren Sproles that has negatively affected their and Masthay’s net punting average, but since that one instance, the punt coverage has been very reliable.
And the person snapping the ball to Masthay, not only on punts but also to him as the place kick holder, has been perfect as well. Long snapper Brett Goode has yet to have an errant snap in four years in a Packers uniform.
Add it all up, and Cobb, Crosby, Masthay and Goode have been the catalysts for what’s been a largely special season for special teams.
According to Football Outsiders, which ranks all special teams units in the NFL, the Packers currently rank ninth.
The season is far from over, but the improvement is special teams is palpable. If they continue to play at a high level, the Packers figure to continue to be a tough team to beat.