Punting part of field-position woes

Due in part to subpar punting and kickoff returns, the Packers lost about 800 yards of field position last season. With the help of Football Outsiders, we break down the undeniable importance of this often-overlooked hidden yardage.

Talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of personnel moves.

The good for general manager Ted Thompson last year? Long snapper Brett Goode — no pun intended.

The ugly? Brett Favre, of course, considering the ceaseless, no-middle-ground debate.

The bad? Booting punter Jon Ryan in favor of Derrick Frost.

Unlike the Favre situation, there's nothing to debate about this personnel decision. At the time, the transaction made some sense. Through their careers, Frost had been brilliant in the two areas where Ryan had struggled: directional punting and pinning the opponent deep while avoiding touchbacks.

But outside of an impressive performance against Minnesota in Week 1, Frost mostly was horrendous. Thompson exacerbated that problem by clinging to Frost like a life preserver for 12 agonizing games

The debacle at punter was part of a larger problem for the Packers last season: the hidden yardage called field position.

The Packers finished 24th with a net punting average of 35.7 yards last season. Not only did that trail league-leading Oakland by 5.5 yards, it was almost 2 yards behind the median figure of 37.5 yards.

Punting was the lowlight of the Packers' subpar special teams. Offensively, the Packers' average drive started at their 28.03-yard line — a byproduct of their woeful kickoff return unit. Defensively, the opponents' average drive started at their 32.09-yard line — a byproduct of deficient punting.

The net loss of 4.06 yards of field position per drive ranked 28th in the NFL, according to Packer Report's research.

While that might not seem like a lot, that translates into about 50 yards of lost field position per game and 800 yards for the season. That's a lot of extra first downs for the offense to gain and a lot of bad field position for the defense to overcome.

The defense couldn't overcome it. According to a breakdown by Football Outsiders, the Packers' defense ranked a respectable 16th in yards allowed per drive but 23rd in points allowed per drive.

"One of the more underrated stats we keep at Football Outsiders is Drive Success Rate," said Doug Farrar, a staff writer for Football Outsiders and publisher of Scout.com's Seahawks and Falcons sites. "DSR is based on a number of factors, including points scored and allowed per drive, turnovers given and recovered per drive, average starting field position (offensive and defensive), and yards gained/allowed. Once we have offensive and defensive totals, we then have a net success rate for each category, and Drive Success Rate comes from that.

"Last year, the Packers finished reasonably well in all offensive categories except for average starting field position — they ranked 27th with an average start from the 28.03-yard line. Defensively, Green Bay's problems were reflected in their DSR numbers. Their opportunistic secondary ranked fourth in interceptions per drive, but the disadvantage came in average starting position, where the Packers ranked 28th by giving up 4 yards per possession."

Of the 12 playoff teams last season, only Arizona and Minnesota finished with a net loss in field position. On the other hand, five playoff teams finished in the top seven in net field position. One of the teams that didn't make the playoffs was New England, which led the league in field position and finished 11-5.

Furthermore, according to the Packers' breakdown, the offense started 18 drives on the opponents' side of midfield. By comparison, the opponents started 28 drives on the Packers' side of midfield. That field-position disparity not surprisingly turned into 118 points for the opponents and only 67 for the Packers. That's more than a field goal per game, an important factor for a team that lost seven games by four points or less.

Good field position leads to an improved Drive Success Rate, and an above-average DSR leads to an improved record. While turnovers are the marquee measure of wins and losses, Football Outsiders' DSR is no less important. Beat the league-average 69.1 percent DSR on offense, and the team wins 66.5 percent of the time, according to a five-year breakdown of Football Outsiders' numbers by StampedeBlue.com. Beat the DSR on defense, and the team wins 65.4 percent of the time. Beat them both in the same game, and the team wins a whopping 89.1 percent of the time.

When the Packers win both sides of the DSR equation, they are 24-3. When they lose them both, they are 2-17.

So, while much of the training camp focus will be on the Packers' transition to the 3-4 defense under new coordinator Do Capers, just as much emphasis should be put on their special teams. With new special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum running the show, can they do better than 24th in net punting? Can they improve the NFL's worst kickoff return? If so, those few yards could mean the difference between 6-10 and the playoffs.

For more from Football Outsiders, check out the new Football Outsiders Almanac.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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