With three days until the start of training camp, we take one last look at the Green Bay Packers special teams.
RISING UP THE RANKINGS
For the past three seasons, Packer Report has put together its own special teams rankings. Unlike the 22-category rankings put together by Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, our rankings focus on the heart of what matters — field-goal percentage, net punting average (for and against) and starting field position after a kickoff (for and against). Last season, Green Bay finished 16th (see chart below), a 15-spot jump over 2014.
“We went through paragraph by paragraph, period by period, and really talked about the things we wanted to get done,” Zook said at the end of last season. “We all got on the same page, and then I think the biggest thing is probably our players bought into it. There’s a lot of talk about scheme, but if there was really one offense or one defense or one special teams that was the best, everybody would be doing it. I think No. 1, we all believe in what we’re doing, and our players believe it. Every year here, we’re probably going to have a lot of young guys. That’s our philosophy. And those guys, the quicker they buy in and see what we’re trying to get accomplished, the better we’re going to be as a team. And hopefully we should be better next year. We’ve got to continue to improve.”
Only Detroit, which went from 28th to third, showed greater improvement. To take the next step, more will be demanded of core players like Chris Banjo, Jeff Janis and Jayrone Elliott, who finished first, second and third, respectively, in tackles last season. And, as is the case throughout the league, the newcomers must avoid youthful mistakes and become immediate contributors.
“Particularly with the young guys, it’s repetition, it’s repetition,” Zook said during the June minicamp. “It’s repetition and seeing the same thing over and over and over and doing the same thing over and over and over. They’ve got to get a point, just as an offense and defense, where they’re not thinking that fraction of a second that they’re thinking. I always tell them, ‘You don’t get second down and third down. You’ve got one down and there’s no re-dos on special teams.’ I don’t want to hear, ‘It’s my bad.’ You don’t get ‘my bad.’ It’s got to be good.”
|Rank||Team||Net Punt||Opp Net||KO Return||Kickoff||FG Pct||Total|
One area where the Packers made dramatic strides was kickoff return. After finishing 23rd in average starting field position in 2014, the Packers soared to fifth last season. Third-round pick Ty Montgomery delivered early dividends with a 31.1-yard average before sustaining an ankle injury that eventually ended his season. Later, Janis got his chance, and he averaged 29.0 yards. Among players with at least seven kickoff returns, only six in the entire league averaged at least 29 yards per runback, with Montgomery ranking third and Janis sixth in average.
That’s great. But it could have been much better.
“If you look back, we probably left — I'm not exaggerating — we probably left at least three touchdowns on the table,” Zook said. “You don't come out of the womb returning kickoffs. People think you just catch a ball and run real fast. But there's reading, it's guys coming real fast. It's a little bit different than a running back because he's behind the line of scrimmage and he's got 2 or 3 or 4 yards. Jeff got better and better and better, I don't think there's any question. And Ty will do the same thing. The way we made our biggest improvement in the kickoff return is our guys blocking. If you look at it, their kicker made two tackles, and I think when you have your kicker making tackles, then now it's up to the returner to beat the kicker.”
Janis, Montgomery and rookie Trevor Davis will battle in what should be a strong competition at returner.
One area where the Packers took a major step backward was punt returns. In 2014, it was about the only thing the Packers did right on special teams. Propelled by Micah Hyde, whose 15.8-yard average ranked No. 1 among players with at least 14 returns, the Packers ranked fifth in opponent net punting average. Last season, however, Hyde averaged a meager 5.8 yards per return, which ranked next-to-last in the league.
SHOWING THEIR LEGS
Last season, Tim Masthay broke the franchise record for net punting average. He now owns the top five spots in franchise history, topped by last year’s 40.2-yard average. Impressive as that is, being No. 1 in Packers history equates to only No. 13 in the league last season.
Meanwhile, Mason Crosby converted 85.7 percent of his field goals. With that, the free-agent kicker was given a four-year, $16.1 million contract, with that $4.025 million average ranking third among kickers.
When it comes to kicking the ball, success is relative in Green Bay, where conditions tend to become challenging as Thanksgiving approaches. How good have kickers gotten? Even though Crosby made 24-of-28 attempts, he ranked only 14th in field-goal percentage. Eight kickers made at least 90 percent of their attempts and 17 made at least 85 percent. Compare that to a decade earlier. Crosby would have been the 10th of 10 kickers who made at least 85 percent.
While the cold and the wind of Lambeau Field will make it nearly impossible for Crosby to lead the NFL in field-goal accuracy, he was one of the few kickers to master the longer distance. With the extra-point kick moved from 20 to 33 yards, Crosby made all 36 attempts — one of just five to convert 100 percent.
“I think how I’ve dealt with adversity — the good and the bad” are what make Crosby the most proud. “There’s been some really awesome moments, but those tough moments are what helped me to really polish what kind of kicker I’m going to be. These last few years are what I expect out of myself and what I expect to be and I hope to continue that forward. Those are the expectations that I have and I know the organization has and I’m excited about that. The adversity, those moments where it didn’t always look so pretty, those moments are things that I draw from and can help me to continue forward and continue the process.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.