Even with explosive returner Will Blackmon and talented kicker Mason Crosby, the Green Bay Packers went from boasting one of the best special teams in the NFL to one of the worst last season.
The Packers plunged to 26th in the NFL from seventh in the Dallas Morning News' special teams rankings, a 22-category statistical breakdown by Rick Gosselin. That was the worst in the NFC North, behind eighth-place Chicago, 19th-place Detroit and 25th-place Minnesota.
While Blackmon's two punt returns for touchdowns were huge positives, the Packers ranked last in the league in kickoff returns and were the most-penalized unit in the NFL. Throw in massive problems covering kickoffs, Crosby's unexpected struggles kicking field goals and the well-chronicled disaster that was punter Derrick Frost, and new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has a challenge ahead of him.
The Packers' special teams weren't the only disappointing group in the division, though. The Bears ranked eighth, which is certainly a fine ranking, but they were No. 1 in 2007. The dip in the rankings can be pegged on Devin Hester going from the most dangerous kick returner in the league to its most overrated.
Here is a look at the NFC North's special teams.
Packers: K Mason Crosby, P Jeremy Kapinos, LS Brett Goode, KOR/PR Will Blackmon, KR Jordy Nelson. Injured reserve — LS J.J. Jansen.
A multitude of coverage breakdowns, including missed tackles, and diminished returns during the second half of the season by primarily Blackmon were critical in the Packers' losing steam and plummeting to the 6-10 record. Blackmon lit a spark early on with two punt returns for touchdowns but did nothing as the primary kickoff returner.
Crosby was a culprit in the second-half slide. Two of his seven field-goal misses, out of 34 attempts, came in potential game-winning situations — at Minnesota and at Chicago, the latter a block on a low kick. Crosby had his usual strong leg on kickoffs, but he punched three out of bounds as now-retired special teams coordinator Mike Stock employed more directional kicking.
Kapinos saved some face for general manager Ted Thompson, McCarthy and Stock by coming in with four games left in the season and doing a much better job, in inclement conditions no less, than free-agent signee Derrick Frost did in the first 12 contests. Goode replaced Rob Davis, who retired, at long snapper and was Davis-like in not having a bad snap.
Bears: PK Robbie Gould, P Brad Maynard, PR Devin Hester, KR Danieal Manning, LS Patrick Mannelly.
Gould gets way too little recognition for his work. He's the third-most-accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (85.9 percent) despite playing half his games outdoors in the often inclement weather at Soldier Field. He was 26-for-29 in 2008. P Brad Maynard doesn't have a huge leg, but he placed 40 punts inside the 20-yard line this season, the second most in the recorded history of that statistic (since 1976).
Hester's returns seemed to be inversely related to his playing time at wide receiver, and he lost the KR job to Danieal Manning, who wound up leading the league with a 29.7-yard average. Hester's punt returns were even worse, as his average plummeted to 6.2 yards, less than half of his average the previous two seasons. Mannelly is as steady as they come.
Lions: K Jason Hanson, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KR/PR Aveion Cason.
Hanson, Harris and Muhlbach were excellent, especially Hanson. The 17-year veteran failed to convert only one field-goal attempt all year. He became the first in NFL history to go 8-for-8 from 50 yards or more and set an NFL record with his 41st from that distance. He also served as a vocal leader, trying to prod the team to avoid 0-16. Hanson, who would have been a free agent, signed a four-year contract on Tuesday. Harris had 24 punts downed inside the 20 with only six touchbacks. But the Lions got virtually nothing out of their return game, even after they brought back Cason to address the problem. Their longest kickoff return of the season was 46 yards. Their longest punt return was only 27 yards.
Vikings: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KOR Maurice Hicks, PR Bernard Berrian.
Longwell continued to be Mr. Clutch throughout the season, kicking three game-winning field goals. He has six since joining the Vikings in 2006. The perception of Kluwe's season might not be all that good given that four of the NFL record seven touchdowns the Vikings surrendered on special teams came on punts. But Kluwe actually was outstanding from a statistical perspective, finishing the season with a 47.6 gross average and a 35.0 net average. It's the punt coverage unit that the Vikings need more production from next season. Loeffler remains a top-notch long snapper and rarely makes a mistake.
The Vikings will be looking for far better from their return men. Berrian provided a spark on punt returns, averaging 16.3 yards and taking one 82 yards for a touchdown on seven attempts, but having your No. 1 receiver return punts isn't ideal. Reynaud (25.1 yards on eight returns) was solid on kickoff returns before he suffered a foot injury. Hicks, signed as a free agent from San Francisco, averaged 23.8 yards on 29 returns and did little to suggest he was a good investment for that role.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and 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 Lambeau Level forum.