Slocum's fate should be decided by next week
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy will have a lot to consider when deciding what course his team will take in 2015.
One area that would appear to be high on that list is determining whether Shawn Slocum will factor into the Packers' plan for fixing their wayward special-teams unit.
The Packers invested a lot of resources into improving the unit this season with negligible returns. Former Illinois and Florida coach Ron Zook was hired to assist Slocum, Jason Simmons was reassigned to provide an extra set of eyes and Randall Cobb was allowed to return punts.
It didn't help. The Packers still plummeted from 19th to last in the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings after conceding an astronomically high number of blocked kicks (seven).
Punter Tim Masthay struggled with confidence in the second half of the season and Green Bay finished among the league's least-productive kickoff-return units for the second consecutive season.
The organization hoped those errors could be remedied in the playoffs, but things only got worse. Seattle pulled off a successful fake field goal for a touchdown in the NFC championship game and then recovered Brandon Bostick's botched onside recovery attempt in the fourth quarter.
Both incidents went a long way in helping the Seahawks rally from a 16-point halftime deficit to win 28-22 in overtime.
"Special teams, definitely a tough performance for us," McCarthy said during his season-ending news conference Wednesday. "Any time you give up seven points and have a turnover, it's very difficult to overcome that, especially when it occurs in the second half like it did."
McCarthy was scheduled to meet with the media last Wednesday before news broke that his younger brother, Joseph, died at 47 years old after a heart attack. The funeral services were held Monday in Cranberry Township, Pa.
After filing their reports and reviews last week, Slocum and the rest of the coaching staff were given this week off. They'll reconvene Monday when McCarthy will start exit interviews with coordinators and assistant coaches.
The two coaches go back a long way, starting at the University of Pittsburgh where McCarthy was quarterbacks coach and Slocum was a graduate assistant. Slocum is one of five assistants who have been on staff since McCarthy took over in 2006.
McCarthy likes continuity and hasn't fired a coordinator since Bob Sanders was let go after the 2008 season. He's still been active with shuffling Slocum's assistants, though. He reassigned Curtis Fuller in 2010 and fired Chad Morton last year.
Over the next week, it'll be up to McCarthy to decide Slocum's fate. He made it clear he won't move hastily.
"It's important to evaluate. I obviously haven't had that opportunity," McCarthy said. "So we'll look at everything. We'll look at every job description, every job responsibility, performance — mine included — and we'll look to make changes."
You'd have to imagine the two errors in the NFC title game will weigh heavily into his decision. While he wasn't asked in any greater detail about Bostick's blunder, McCarthy addressed the Seahawks' decision to spring the fake field goal on the Packers down 16-0 with 4 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Seattle punter Jon Ryan, who played for Green Bay in 2006 and 2007, has been vocal about the genesis of the fake being inside linebacker Brad Jones' tendency to sell out to block field goals. The cue for the fake was simply if Jones was on the field.
After Jones was cleared on the block right, Ryan had a run-pass option on the rollout. Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said afterward he sensed eligible lineman Garry Gilliam behind him, but ran up to cut off Ryan anyway and conceded the 19-yard touchdown.
McCarthy said he didn't see the incident as an oversight in self-scouting, but acknowledged it would have been better to play it safe in that situation given how the defense was playing at that point in the game.
"Creating the opportunity for them to make a big play is where we erred," McCarthy said. "Fakes are risky and Jon Ryan can run, we know that. I think from the responsibility standpoint, pursuit and so forth, I think it would've been a foot race for the first down. We did not execute our particular responsibilities as best we can, and they had a better play call than what we had called."
The special-teams unit was rough during Slocum's first two seasons, but appeared to turn a corner in 2011 and 2012. Along with Cobb's explosive plays, McCarthy routinely characterized it as the team's most consistent unit, a notion reflected in 12th- and 13th-place finishes in the Dallas Morning News rankings.
There were positives this year. Defensive back Micah Hyde returned two punts for touchdowns and led all NFL returners with at least 14 attempts with 15.8 yards per return. Mason Crosby was 7-of-7 on field goals in the playoffs after offensive linemen Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang rejoined the protection unit.
The negatives were glaring, including Marcus Thigpen returning a Masthay punt 75 yards for a touchdown on Dec. 14. It was Buffalo's lone touchdown in the 21-13 victory that was the difference between the Packers being the first or second seed in the NFC playoffs.
Cornerback Jarrett Bush has spent the past nine years with Slocum's units, but doesn't know what the future holds.
"I love the guy, not only as a coach but as an uncle because I've been around him so long," Bush said last week. "It's up to them. I love the guy. We've been through a lot together. We were to the NFC championship in '07, the Super Bowl, playoffs and now NFC championship again. So, we've been through a lot, learned a lot. It's up to them to make that decision."
Once McCarthy figures out possible changes on his staff, he'll turn his attention to recalibrating his team's mindset following the monumental collapse. It's easy to fall into hysteria when revisiting the more than a dozen moments where a trip to the Super Bowl could have been sealed.
However, the magnitude of the loss was quickly put into context for McCarthy in the wake of his brother's passing. Decisions about play-calling or whether to go for it on fourth down pale in comparison to the bigger picture.
McCarthy will keep that in mind when setting his vision for next year. Those decisions start now.
"The 2015 football team will not bear the burden of what happened in 2014 or before that," McCarthy said. "That's not the way we operate. We won't internalize the things that go on outside our building. We're going to create another opportunity to build the best football team that we can in 2015, and we're going to go for it."
— whodkiew@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod