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Can Ron Zook Resurrect Packers Special Teams?

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Can Ron Zook Resurrect Packers Special Teams?

There were plenty of reasons that the Green Bay Packers did not represent the NFC in the Super Bowl last year. In an otherwise dominating offensive performance that day in Seattle, the head coach reigned in his potent offense reverting to what long-standing Packers fans once called the “Holmgren Prevent Offense”.  The defensive was in a wrong formation at the most inopportune time. And a special teams performance that was next to abysmal all year long sealed the deal with a Brandon Bostick brain-melt for the ages. 

The better team lost that day.  Now what?

If you are Mike McCarthy the first thing you do is to bite the bullet and fire your friend and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum.  You can argue, as this writer has done for the past three years, that it was long overdue.  But at least McCarthy was finally forced to act which created a coaching vacancy and several upcoming player opportunities on a unit that ranked dead last in the NFL last year.

Zook, is in his second year with the Packers, was promoted from special teams assistant to the special teams coordinator job on February 7 of this year.

Shortly after the end of season player evaluations were completed the ax began to fall on players the Packers players deemed not dependable or lacking talent.  Public enemy number-one Brandon Bostick was given his walking papers only to end up as a member of the Minnesota Vikings – to the giddy approval of the Packers faithful.  Other key special team players will also not return, guaranteeing several new faces will take the field this year.  Those players include Jarrett Bush their pro-bowl special teamer and DuJuan Harris last year’s primary kickoff returner until benched late last season.

Zook Has a Background with Special Teams

Per the Packers own site; Zook previously held the title of NFL special teams coordinator position with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996-98.  Those units ranked 23rd in 1996, 24th in 1997 and 13th in 1998.

Zook is entering his seventh season at the pro level, having previously spent time on the staffs of the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers during his coaching career.

Prior to coming to Green Bay, Zook gained 10 years of experience as a head coach in the college ranks, first at the University of Florida (2002-04) and more recently at the University of Illinois (2005-11).

Prior to making his return to Florida, Zook enjoyed six years as an assistant in the NFL. His final two seasons came in 2000-01 when he served as the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints and forged a relationship with McCarthy, who was then the team’s offensive coordinator. The Saints’ defense led the NFL with 119 sacks over the course of his two seasons and ranked No. 10 in the league in points allowed in 2000. 

In 1999, he coached defensive backs for the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Chiefs ranked No. 5 in the NFL with 25 INTs that season and tied for No. 2 with five INT-TDs. The 25 INTs were the most by the club since it posted 31 during the 1986 season.

In 1997, Zook oversaw a Steelers’ kickoff return unit led by returner Will Blackwell that ranked No. 6 in the NFL with a 24.7-yard average. That same season, he guided veteran K Norm Johnson to the fourth-best field-goal percentage in the league, an 88.0 mark that ultimately stood as the second highest of the specialist’s 18-year career. While in Pittsburgh, Zook also worked with current Packers safeties coach Darren Perry and defensive/special teams assistant Jason Simmons, who were both defensive backs and special teams contributors during his time with the club. 

Fans Divided Over Zook

If you took a poll of Packers fans you will find that they are divided on how successful Zook will be coordinating special teams. 

There are those who see Zook as just another McCarthy crony who didn’t make much of a difference last year when he was an assistant under Slocum.

Others look at his coaching body of work and come away impressed. 

One advantage that Slocum did not have last year was that Zook will have the benefit of his boss stating publicly that ST will be much improved this year.  McCarthy has also committed using any player capable of making them better starter or not.  In addition General Manager Ted Thompson drafted players who should excel on special teams lead by Ty Montgomery - judged by many to be the best return man in the college football last year.

One thing is certain; the 2015 version of Green Bay Packers special teams cannot do any worse than last year, and must do substantially better for the team to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50

And as a side-note I have ‘moved-on because one must - but still have not gotten over that Seattle game. 

Have you?

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (36) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Ibleedgreenmore's picture

Sure would be nice to see a few touchdown on kickoffs that is possible this year. All I know is it has to be better than last year.

RCPackerFan's picture

Hell I'd be happy with a few returns returned past the 50.

Idiot Fan's picture

Last year my criteria for success was not fumbling. This year I just might bump it up to not fumbling AND bringing it out past the 20!

RCPackerFan's picture

yeah, past the 20 would be a great thing too.

Mojo's picture

Sadly you made me laugh Idiot. So true, so true.

One year, instead of picking out just one unit for improvement, MM should state they're all going to improve. Then we can finally win a SB again.

As far as the ST's, sure they can be resurrected. But that will be because the overall talent level is improving versus anything the Zookster does.

And no Jeff, I haven't gotten over the Seattle loss. Probably won't unless they win a SB real soon. I can't say I feel real proud of myself on the way I acted that day. I've been depressed or saddened over big losses in the past, but rarely that angry.

4thand1's picture

I almost put my foot through the tv. Good thing I didn't because I was at a friends house. Either way, I almost bought a new tv.

Big T's picture

We had the two headed monster last year (Zook and Slocum) and they sucked badly. So we cut one of the heads off and expect miracles. We will have better special teams this year in spite of Zook. ST will be better because of better players and MM taking the time(having the time) to make it better. Zook is just a figure head at this point.

croatpackfan's picture

I have... At the moment when I concluded that Mike McCarthy diagnosed correctly why Packers melted down and delegate his play calling I knew the similar situation will never occur... This game is way behind me and I'm looking into this season as into the bright future for the Packers...

jeremyjjbrown's picture

Well, even if Resurrection is not in the cards at least it will be difficult to be that bad again.

Idiot Fan's picture

Zook's post-hire comments did not inspire confidence in me, as well as the ST rankings of his Illinois teams when he was head coach. But I'm starting to wonder if the quotes were just him not wanting to crap on Slocum on his way out. The article from a few weeks ago either in the JS or GBPG focusing on Crosby had some quotes from Crosby that made it sound like things were pretty different on STs in minicamps under Zook.

Based on the personnel changes alone I think we can improve significantly. Anything good Zook does is gravy.

Tundraboy's picture

Agree. Thats how I'm looking at it.

packsmack's picture

As a Florida fan, nope.

Tarynfor12's picture

I hope and cannot wait to hear Packer fans yelling at opponents...
" You've just been ZOOK-ed".

Though it could be used in a reverse meaning...
"We've been ZOOK-ed".

Evan's picture

So, does anyone actually have any sense what makes a special teams coach "good" or "bad." Because I sure don't.

I think far more than offense of defense, special teams is dependent on the talent on the squad more than scheme/coaching. Bostick wasn't a coaching failure, it was a player execution failure. Same for Harris' inability to get past the 20 yard line. I find it hard to put missed FGs or a shanked punt on the coach.

There are obvious coaching failures - not being prepared for the fake FG against Seattle being Exhibit A, half of the people watching from home were screaming to watch for it - but I feel like those are few and far between.

Idiot Fan's picture

That makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it's probably mostly right. But then I think about Dave Toub, who repeatedly gave the Bears awesome STs (not just because of Hester), and now he's doing it for KC. It's probably something like 30% scheme and coaching, 10% creativity, and 60% personnel.

Amanofthenorth's picture

Scotty o'Brien. NAtive of Siperior and probably the greatest ST coach in the history of the NFL How? Teacher

Guisado's picture

Thanks for the well researched and written article, Jeff.

Personally, I am allowing Zook a chance to prove that the ST failures of last year were the result of Slocum's refusal to listen to his ideas. I'll remain cautiously optimistic. We don't know what went on behind closed doors during game week preparation last year, but Slocum was in charge and Zook was the assistant. MM may have made the more difficult choice by retaining Zook over Slocum. I think it would have been easier on the relationships (and politically understandable) to fire both of them and divide the blame. So hopefully Zook has different ideas that he is going to implement and MM is giving him that opportunity.

Evan's picture

Zook: "Hey Coach Slocum, I have an idea. I was thinking, what if we had Harris return the ball to, I dunno, the 40 yard line this week?"

Slocum: "Terrible idea. You want Rodgers to pad his stats, don't you? We're going to stick with the 12 yard line. Besides, you know what I always say, 'the closer to our own end zone the better.'"

Zook: "You're the coach, coach."

Something like that?

Portland Mark's picture

I hope he inspires the players to listen to him and do their jobs. It was reported that the last thing he said to the return team prior to the onsides kick was, "If your name isn't Nelson or Hyde, block someone, don't touch the ball." Bostick just ignored that order.
Also, on the fake field goal for a TD, was Hawk coached to go after the runner and let the receiver run past him unguarded? Did Slocum have any plan to defend a fake field goal? Turn those two plays around and.....
Was it the players who didn't execute a plan or was there just no plan?

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I'm not sure I agree with Mojo and Big T in that I don't think lack of talent on STs was the problem, other than maybe at KR with DuJuan Harris returning. What I do remember thinking and writing last September was that GB's roster from 1-53 was the most talented I could remember in a long time, and while I thought there was some dead wood at the end (Carl Bradford, Goodson, Lane Taylor, Garth Gerhart, Sherrod), I mostly thought that about players who were there primarily for their ST prowess, like Ryan Taylor and Sean Richardson, or development like Elliott and Goodson, who I thought would be good on STs. I didn't realize that Boykin and Janis would turn out to be dead weight, too, or that Mulumba would get hurt so soon. I think that there was some concentration of dead weight at OL.

That said, I thought 1-46 had good talent. I am not so sure that the talent from 1-46 will be better this year. Clearly, Montgomery should be a big improvement in ST talent. Kick and Punt coverage improvement is really what we are talking about (and improvement from Masthay). Have to wait to watch the younger players to see about the talent in the last 10 roster spots.

John Galt III's picture

Just curious. How much time is spent on special teams in live practice as a unit vs. offense and defense snaps?

4thand1's picture

Not enough the last couple of years.

lou's picture

The only other time I have seen a head coach hang on to an assistant coach who everyone knows is a failure was when Marty Schottenhemier kept holding onto his brother Kurt. I still believe Thompson and Murphy gave McCarthy an ultimatum to finally fire Slocum. Forget all the other obvious failures, 7 block kicks, that doesn't even happen in Pop Warner football. Zook deserves a chance at the job.

Evan's picture

Great example. The blocked kicks. I'm all for accountability, but unless Slocum instituted a faulty blocking scheme, I can't really fault him for blocked FGs. Players have to perform. I remember one block where the guy on the far left (maybe Lang? I don't remember) didn't touch anyone. He hardly got out of his stance.

Horse's picture

Sitton and Lang were removed from ST because of injuries and the subs weren't good. That's what accounted for the blocked kicks.

lou's picture

Yes the O-Line regulars obviously were better blockers but seriously, the ones that got chances when they were down had just plain "basic" jobs to do and if you can't do it from game to game and you are not replaced - THAT IS THE COACHES FAULT NO ONE ELSE'S. Not only that there was not enough special teams emphasis and the SP Coach if aware should have asked for more emphasis. Here is the perfect example, Bostic with all his physical talent could not be trusted enough to use on offense but remained a member to the special teams unit - HOW DID THAT WORK OUT ? You guys are way off base, 7 block kicks reflects directly on the coaching staff.

Evan's picture

Replaced by who, though? There are only so many o-linemen on a roster. Thompson picks the players, not Slocum.

And I don't understand your Bostick example. Yea, he wasn't trusted for offense but remained on ST. Offense is a lot more complicated than ST. And that's true of a lot of young players - you earn your stripes and the coach's trust on special teams before moving onto offense/defense. Obviously it bit them in the ass, but I don't get your point.

lou's picture

If the same blockers fail to block week after week, everyone in the organization needs to look at what experienced players are available or who is on the practice squad that can be moved up. If Slocum was screaming to management about the talent and IQ levels he has less culpability but he is still the one RESPONSIBLE. 7 blocked kicks and years worth of failure = IRRESPONSIBLE COACHING and unless your buddy is the head coach or GM your are back in the college ranks a lot sooner.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I have no idea why Lou believes Zook deserves a chance at the job. I've hired people. I hired the best person available. That is the most important criterion. If MM objectively believes that Zook was the best candidate available, fine. But not because he is next in line. IIRC, since GB was still in the playoffs, some ST coaches got hired, so maybe Zook was the best of the rest.

lou's picture

My guess is McCarthy was given the ultimatum on Slocum prior to the start of the regular season and with that in mind they wanted a ready replacement so the due diligence for the next coach was done at that point, that seems logical to me. Zook has plenty of diverse coaching experience (unlike Slocum) and looks like he was the choice a years ago based on the ultimatum, he either does the job or they go look again, its that simple.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Well, maybe. I'd rephrase it then. That means that Zook was the best ST coach who GB could hire to be an assistant without offering that coach the coordinator position or guaranteeing that the current coordinator was going to retire soon. Well, maybe GB paid Zook a lot to be 2nd banana while Zook waited for Slocum's incompetence to completely manifest itself.

Barnacle's picture

A team with players that were good enough to be almost in the Super Bowl, probably were good enough to rate better than last in special teams.

Slocum was a totally incompetent ST coach. My concern is that McCarthy missed that over the previous 4 years. Belicheck noticed and coached his punt team players to surround the GB punt return players and block them towards a punt on the ground. The poorly coached packer should not have been hanging around a punt on the ground. One poorly coached GB player even reached between a defenders legs to try to down the ball, nothing good can come from that.

Some may say that it was stupid players, I say if they are that stupid , the ST coach should have identified the players stupidity long before game time.

Evan's picture

I also wonder who picks the players for ST? How much input does Slocum/Zook have on who's on his units? I'd imagine there are some who McCarthy deems off-limits and some they sort of have no choice but to use, yea?

PETER MAIZ's picture

Now that you've given me the skinny on Zook, I have more confidence on an improvement. But I would replace Masthay for Cody.

Evan's picture

Crabtree is available and best I can tell has nothing but time on his hands.

Evan's picture

Wrong thread.

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