Step right up and spin the wheel: It’s anybody’s guess what we’re going to get from our special teams this season.
In 2008, the Packers had a pretty good offense, a bad defense, and bad special teams. The 2009 preseason suggests that the offense should be even better than it was last year, and the defense should be much improved. The special teams, however, are still a huge question mark. When you consider that good special teams play can easily lead to a couple of extra victories, and bad special teams play can lead to a couple of extra defeats, the quality of special teams play could very well be the difference between good and great, average and good, or, God forbid, poor and average for the Packers in 2009.
I happen to think that the Packers’ special teams will be at least average, and maybe better, this season, but I wish I had more evidence on which to base my opinion. One reason for hope is that with the switch to the 3-4 defense, there are more linebackers on the team, and those are the players with the best mentality and body type for special teams. At this point, however, this is just an abstraction. As is typical in the preseason, the starting special teams units have not played together on a consistent basis, so we just don’t know what we have.
The most important special teams player on any team is the kicker. This also happens to be the Packers’ biggest question mark. Mason Crosby is very good on kickoffs, but kickoffs don’t win or lose games, field goals do. In his first two seasons, Crosby has been in the lower reaches of the NFL in terms of field goal percentage, and he blew two potential game-winners last year. In the preseason, he’s been up and down. Sure, most of his misses have been from long range, and the shorter miss at Arizona was likely caused by a poor hold by the third-string holder, but Crosby is anything but money in the bank right now. If he lines up for a potential game-winner (or game-loser), we will all be shaking in our boots.
On the other hand, the punting situation no longer looks so bad. Jeremy Kapinos’s strong finish in training camp gives us some reason to believe that he will do a good job. Strangely enough, I feel better about our punter than our kicker right now, even though the kicker was successful in college and is beginning his third season with the Packers, while the punter is a journeyman.
As for the coverage teams, they might be described as a toss-up. Last year they were mostly adequate but gave up a couple of big returns at the worst possible times. Will the new special teams coach, Shawn Slocum, help clean that problem up? I like what I’ve heard about him, which is that he emphasizes fundamentals, like blocking and tackling. The only problem is that I seem to hear that same refrain every few years, when the Packers bring in a new special teams coach after firing the old one. It’s impossible to tell if it will be true this time around.
We do have one of the league’s better punt returners in Will Blackmon. As long as he is healthy, this is a position of strength for our team. Unfortunately, Blackmon is injury prone, and his absence during this preseason has shown that there simply are no other punt returners on the roster. Jordy Nelson and Ruvell Martin are both too large and lacking in lateral quickness to be a force as punt returners. It’s surprising that no other players have been given a shot at this job during Blackmon’s absence.
Kick returns remain a problem with our without Blackmon, as this job requires more straight-line speed and lighting-quick decision-making. Several players have tried returning kicksoff during the preseason, from Nelson to DeShawn Wynn to Tyrell Sutton, all with unimpressive results. Pat Lee, if he ever gets healthy, may prove to be our silver bullet in this area, and he showed why with his big return against the Titans, but of course he ended his run by twisting his knee and spent the rest of the night on the bench with an ice pack.
So it looks like the special teams will be a work in progress during the first part of this season. We may not really know what we have until we are several games in, and even then, we may not like the results. Everything else about this year’s Packer team suggests that it should be playoff caliber, but as last season taught us, there is a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. And there are likely to be at least a few games in which the special teams determine which side of that line the Packers find themselves standing on at the end of the day.