Grading the Packers: Special teams get C-

Special teams in 2002 were a curse and a blessing for the Packers. While Green Bay was above average in scoring and punting, its punt and kickoff return units were among the league's worst.<p>

After a poor pre-season performance, Green Bay's coverage units were respectible in the regular season. The Packers ranked 13th in the National Football League on punts and 15th on kickoffs.

Special teams also forced one fumble and recovered two, finishing with a plus-1 in turnover differential, under the now retired Frank Novak.

The Packers were 17th in the league in kickoff average (61.0 yards per kickoff) and did not allow any runbacks for touchdowns. Opponents averaged 8.7 yards per punt return and the Packers allowed one punt return for a touchdown, a 72-yard runback on a reverse Sept. 22 in Detroit.

Ryan Longwell led the Packers with 128 points, despite kicking in the challenging Lambeau Field. He averted his worst season as a pro in 2001 (20 of 31, 64.5%) to make 28 of 34 field goals (82.4%) and all 44 extra point attempts. He was subsequently named as the first alternate for the NFC squad in the Pro Bowl.

Punter Josh Bidwell was consistent. He tied for 12th in the NFL with a gross average of 41.7 yards per punt. The Packers were 10th in net average at 35.7 yards per punt. Bidwell punted 79 times, 12th most in the NFL.

Like Longwell, Bidwell's season came to a disappointing finish in the NFC Wild Card playoff game against Atlanta when he suffered the first blocked punt of his pro career. Longwell, kicking on a snowy surface, missed field goal attempts from 47 and 44 yards.

Blocking was the main reason for Green Bay's woeful punt and kickoff return units performance this season. The Packers were last in the league in punt return average (4.2 yards per return) and 26th in kickoff return average at 20.4 yard per return. In 2001, the Packers finished 28th in the league in punt returns and 30th in kickoff returns.

The New York Jets averaged a league-best 16.0 yards per punt return this season, and Philadelphia led the NFL on kickoff returns with a 24.9-yard average per return. The Eagles are playing for the NFC title this Sunday against Tampa Bay.

"Our return units, you've got to put that on me as a general manager," said coach Mike Sherman. "I never quite found the guy. That's my job to find him. I couldn't invent him. We looked as a staff, and he just wasn't out there. Darrien Gordon came in and did a nice job catching the ball for us. I felt like when we got going ... 'I remember sitting and watching the Saints game against Tampa and saw the return game being such a significant factor in them winning that football game. I just felt like we had to get some return yardage."

Gordon led the NFC in punt returns in 2001 but averaged just 5.1 yards on 35 punt returns. The Packers tried untested J.J. Moses for two games but his inability to make correct decisions on fielding the ball cost him his job. Moses tried to field a ball that was rolling toward the end zone against San Francisco that was nearly recovered by the 49ers on the 1. He also chased down to rolling balls off punts against Buffalo and nearly turned the ball over.

The Packers brought in veteran Eric Metcalf for the final game of the season and the playoffs, but Metcalf didn't have any better success. On two occasions, Metcalf's blockers allowed opponents to drive them into him, which is legal, while he was signaling for a fair catch.

"We weren't great on our return units blocking-wise," said Sherman. "I thought we improved during the season. Our coverage units definitely improved dramatically."

Sherman is currently in the process of hiring a new special teams coach. He said that he prefers to hire someone with a lot of experience coaching special teams.

Because special teams were up and down in 2002 and never came through when the team needed a boost, they receive a Packer Report grade of C-.

Note: On Thursday, Packer Report will grade Green Bay's coaching staff performance in 2002.

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