For weeks, special teams coordinator Ron Zook had been working on getting his units ready for the regular season.
He had building-block players, such as Mason Crosby, Chris Banjo, Jeff Janis, Jayrone Elliott and Demetri Goodson.
So much for all of that work. Banjo and Elliott haven’t practiced this week due to hamstring injuries. Janis is playing with one hand wrapped in a club-cast. Goodson is serving a four-game suspension. Those four were the top non-specialist contributors to the special teams last season. Oh, and punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Rick Lovato were released, meaning there’s a new snapper-holder combination for Crosby.
“Welcome to the National Football League,” Zook said matter-of-factly on Wednesday night.
Even by the revolving-door NFL’s standards, this seems extreme.
“Well I don't know, is it?” Zook countered. “If you go back and think about injuries and things that you have, I think that goes in cycles in years. Some years you have more than others, and I think that's one thing that coach (Mike McCarthy) does a great job of. Hey there's going to be changes, there's going to be adversity, there's going to be things that happen. Just keep playing.”
The Packers have no choice but to keep playing because nobody’s going to cancel Sunday’s season-opening game at Jacksonville to give Banjo, Elliott and Janis time to heal.
The Jaguars will pose an opening challenge to the Packers’ reshuffled and uncertain special teams. The Jaguars finished 11th in the annual Packer Report Special Teams Rankings but a lofty third in the Dallas Morning News’ rankings. On returns, Rashad Greene averaged 16.7 yards with one touchdowns on punts and Corey Grant averaged 27.5 yards on kickoffs. They also signed standout punter Brad Nortman away from Carolina.
If there’s any upside, it’s that Zook got a head-start in replacing his core players. He’ll lean heavily on young players — as is commonplace throughout the league.
“Your system has to be able to take care of that,” Zook said. “The personnel people bring in people that can play. You just plug them in and you go. I think the big thing about trying to be simple with your scheme and letting guys play fast, that's something that since I've been here, we've really, really tried to do, and those guys go. You can't worry about guys that aren't here — you've heard that saying. You coach who's here and that's kind of how we've looked at it. They've just jumped in and everybody's kind of pulled their weight.”
If Janis can play, that would provide a boost. In theory, anyway. Can he beat a blocker with one hand and then make a tackle? Or would his presence do more harm than good?
“I've been impressed with the way he's practiced,” Zook said. “He's worked the show teams for us and done a good job that way. So, he wants to go. He's going to do everything he can do to go.”
The other wild card is the changes at snapper and punter. Brett Goode, who was re-signed this week after missing training camp while recovering from his torn ACL, handled the snapping for most of the last eight seasons. But he’s got to build a rapport with Jacob Schum, the new punter/holder. Whether it’s a punt or field goal, at some point you’d expect the Jaguars to put the Packers’ replacements to the test.
“They're always going to check your oil,” Zook said. “If they feel like there's a weak link there, they're going to attack that.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.null