Zook has high hopes for special teams unit
Ron Zook sees more potential than reclamation project when the Green Bay Packers' new special-teams coordinator assesses the wayward unit he's inherited.
In fact, the former Florida and Illinois head coach believes you can boil a tumultuous 2014 season down to a dozen "bad" plays. Zook shied away from offering specific examples, but 11 are obvious.
• Seven blocked kicks, punts and extra points.
• Marcus Thigpen's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against Buffalo.
• Chris Williams' 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Chicago.
• Jon Ryan's touchdown pass off a fake field goal and Brandon Bostick's fumbled onside recovery in the NFC championship game against Seattle.
All differ in level of importance. Williams' garbage-time touchdown was relatively meaningless in the Packers' 55-14 victory following the bye week whereas the two mishaps in Seattle were critical in the Packers' 28-22 overtime loss.
The collapse ultimately cost Shawn Slocum his job and resulted in Zook's promotion from assistant special-teams coach, which the organization made official on Thursday.
"There's 12 plays that were not good," Zook said. "Really there was only a couple plays that had an outcome that affected the game. If you go back and you take everybody in the National Football League, they probably had close to 12 plays whether it be a return or a block or something bad happen. The way it turned out with us — those particular plays, particularly at the end, they had a serious outcome on the game, an effect on the game."
Thirteen days after Slocum's departure, the Packers unveiled the first wave of their plans to rebuild their toiling special-teams unit. It started with the promotion of Zook to coordinator and Jason Simmons to his top assistant.
However, Packers coach Mike McCarthy took things one step further and announced another significant investment into future of the oft-forgotten phase.
In deciding to pull back from offensive play-calling, McCarthy said he'll take a larger seat in the special-teams room. In lieu of a third assistant on special teams, the head coach vowed to help change the "culture" of a unit that lost its way this past season.
"Special teams needs to improve. It's an area definitely of concern in the past," McCarthy said. "We have to continue to develop our young players, get them ready to play and contribute as quickly as possible. And we need to get more out of our veterans. To me, that's the hole in our special teams. The consistency and the standard of play in our veteran players is not where it needs to be. And that will be a direct focus of mine."
Zook agrees with McCarthy's assessment of where special teams fell short in 2014, but sees hope. He points to positives as difficult as they may be to see on the surface.
As Zook points out, you only get one shot on special teams. It's feast or famine. Sometimes, it's about handling misfortune such as the injury absence of starting guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang from the field-goal protection after Week 8.
Kicker Mason Crosby had four of his five blocked field goals and extra points during that second-half stretch without Sitton and Lang available.
There were also other noticeable lapses in fundamentals like Detroit safety Isa Abdul-Quddus breezing past tight end Andrew Quarless to block a Crosby 52-yard field goal in the regular-season finale against the Lions.
All the issues bubbled to the surface in Seattle. Zook didn't go into great detail of what happened in the NFC title game other than to say Ryan's touchdown pass wasn't solely the result of Slocum's call. He added that Bostick "wasn't the only one who made a mistake on" Seattle's successful onside kick near the end of regulation.
The disappointment still stings, but the problems are correctable in Zook's eyes. He doesn't foresee any drastic changes in how the unit operates. The key is getting the most out of veterans and keeping things simple for younger players.
"I think No. 1 the veterans buying in," Zook said. "I'm not saying they didn't buy in. But the emphasis is those young guys, particularly early, they're going to pay attention to what the veterans are doing. If you go back and you look at the top special teams in the league usually they're veteran guys are leading those younger guys."
Special teams is a labor of love for Zook, though he admittedly couldn't wait to get off the unit when he left Pittsburgh in 1999 to become a defensive backs coach in Kansas City.
Two years later, everything came full circle when he was the head coach of the Florida Gators. As responsibilities multiplied exponentially, he leaned back on his three seasons as the Steelers' special-teams coordinator.
"I said I never want to deal with the punt team again," said Zook in a joking manner. "As soon as I became a head coach, then I obviously got very, very involved again with it because it is a phase that there's certain games where maybe it's not quite as important — the Chicago game or the Minnesota game — where you're up and you just have to keep from losing, but there's a lot times where you have a chance to win the game.
"We have a chance to win the game in Seattle. We stop the fake field goal, which should've been stopped. There's no reason for that. Anyway those kind of things you just have to ride the wave so to speak."
Zook believes there's value in having the head coach in the special-teams room. Bill Cowher used to do the same thing with him in Pittsburgh.
Zook worked for two seasons with McCarthy in New Orleans under Jim Haslett. The two even lived together for a short time while McCarthy served as offensive coordinator and Zook was handling the Saints' defense.
McCarthy's role likely will be similar to what Zook did for Slocum last year in providing an extra set of eyes and suggestions for how to deal with certain situations.
It also drives a point home to players of how much the team values competent play in the third phase.
"I always had a saying in football of, 'Everybody needs to have a little fear for their job,' whether it be the players, the coaches or whoever," Zook said. "I think he adds that a little bit."
The Packers will have to decide this offseason what veteran personnel will be a part of the new vision Zook's hiring represents. Jarrett Bush, Davon House and Jamari Lattimore are all unrestricted free agents. Safety Sean Richardson, who led the team in special-team tackles, is also restricted.
With a coach now in place, the Packers hope they've taken the first step toward stability on a unit that demands perfection.
"I think special teams is always under the microscope because it's one play," Zook said. "You don't get second down or third down on special teams. It's one play and that's what people remember.
"It's an area that people sometimes don't pay a lot of attention to until there's a problem."
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.