This past week, Packers fans were forced to deal with the possibility of extending forgiveness to a man who they once swore they would run out of town on a rail if given the opportunity. Once-thought permanent feelings of animosity suddenly began to melt in the realization that all things can get better, if given a little time and honest effort.
No, I’m not talking about Brett Favre. I’m talking about the rocky relationship Packer fans have had with special teams coach Shawn Slocum over his tenure in Green Bay, and how suddenly those fans are realizing that he may just not be the bad guy many of us thought he was.
Of course, I’m exaggerating some of the sentiments, but for some fans, Slocum has had a huge target on his back as, quite honestly, his squads simply could be counted on for at least one game-changing gaffe week in and week out. And to a degree, it may still be true, as evidenced by foolish penalty on Dezman Moses nd a muffed return by Sam Shields.
But the special teams have evolved from a risk on nearly every time they took the field to perhaps one of the most conservatively solid groups in the league. Now, I know there are many teams with big-play special teams play out there, and I’m not talking about that here. Slocum’s squads may never be that kind of high-flying unit.
But a turn of the page back to 2009 would take you to the rock bottom for the seventh-year special teams coach, the year they finished dead last in the league, at least according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. If you don’t buy into DVOA, perhaps a couple of harsh reminders of objective reality will convince how bad Slocum really was that year.
* Mason Crosby had a miserable year, kicking 75% on field goals, with Slocum deciding mid-season to change his entire kicking motion after refusing to bring in a kicking coach over the offseason.
* Jeremy Kapinos was called out publicly by Mike McCarthy on two occasions on the way to finishing 33rd in the league in punting net average. Note: there are only 32 teams in the league.
* The return teams were below mediocre, finishing 23rd on both kick and punt return average and nary a touchdown between them, while the coverage teams were middling at best, giving up at least one big return a game and losing the battle for field position, particularly on punt returns.
There was a fierce rally in Green Bay for Slocum to be fired, and to our surprise, he wasn’t. The 2010 preseason started out much as yet another comedy of errors for Slocum, with kick returners unable to field a ball, repeated missed assignments, and stupid personal fouls upping the ante for many fans wanting to see McCarthy make a change.
But the Packers won the Super Bowl that year, perhaps in spite of Slocum and his special teams play. But since then, we’ve had less and less reason to set up the firing squad week after week. If you’re like me, you probably haven’t noticed, and just defaulted back to the “Keep Calm and Fire Slocum” poster hanging on your wall.
But, a few near-misses aside, Slocum’s squads had an unusually solid day two Thursday nights ago against the Bears, topped (of course) by the brilliant execution of a fake field goal on a fourth-and-26 that went for a touchdown. It was a gutsy call that could have failed miserably (and the onus would have been on both McCarthy and Slocum if it did). But, not only did it work, it seemed to be the kick start the Packers needed to break out of the funk they had been in since the end of last season.
A closer look shows that the dangerous Devin Hester was nullified by the long, booming kicks of Tim Masthay and Mason Crosby, not even giving him a chance to return the ball most of the time. And oh-by-the-way, Crosby is three-for-three this season on field goals.
What happened? Where did this sudden new-and-improved special team play come from? Actually, its been getting better for longer than you’d realize. According to the DVOA rankings from Football Insiders, the Packers rose from 32nd over all in 2009 to 26th in 2010, and all the way to 8th overall in 2011.
Yes, the Packers had one of the better special teams units last season, overshadowed by the historically momentousness season by the offense and the equally historical meltdown of the defense. Hard to fit a story line about special teams that were now simply a non-historic serviceable unit.
The Bears game wasn’t just an abberation. It was the icing on the cake for a much-maligned coach and the units under him that have gradually improved over the past year. Unless you’re Brian Carriveau, you probably didn’t notice.
Much of that may be because we don’t regard a special teams unit as “good” unless it is running back punts and kickoffs for touchdowns. Desmond Howard? Now THAT was a “good” special teams unit, right? Am I right?
But, as the Packers’ special teams now rank 5th overall in the league (according to those DVOA rankings), none of it is really because of anything spectacular. Like every other NFL kicker, all of Crosby’s kicks sail into the back of the end zone. The coverage teams have been solid overall. While the kickoff return/coverage teams give up six yards in comparative return yards per kick (GB’s 23.5 to opponents’ 29.3), the Packers dominate the punt returns by over ten yards per return (GB 19.2 to opponents’ 9.3). Much of this is due to the dominance of Masthay, who has made memories of Derrick Frost and Kapinos disappear. His 45.4 net average is almost as impressive as his league-leading seven punts inside the 20.
Sure, with Randall Cobb back there returning, you wish the Packers would be setting him up with a monster wedge that would spring him for touchdown after touchdown. How quickly we forget that only two years ago, we literally could not find a player on the squad that could even field a ball cleanly, much less return it.
And perhaps, for that reason, is why I’m suddenly so impressed with Slocum’s squads: the bar was set pretty low a few years ago, and now that he has his kickers and coverage and return units not hurting the battle for field position, it feels like a major victory. If the offense plays like it did last season, and the defense continues to play like it did against the Bears, the special teams just has to not screw up to make this a complete team that will easily contend for a Super Bowl.
But the truth of the matter is that Slocum’s squads are doing just a little bit better than not screwing up. It’s time we gave Slocum credit for bringing special teams sexy back.