Crosby likes Zook's vision for special teams
MILWAUKEE – The first things Mason Crosby noticed when he returned for the start of the offseason program were the multitude of changes inside the Green Bay Packers' special-teams room.
A new coordinator, Ron Zook, was in charge. Veteran mainstays such as Jarrett Bush, Brad Jones and DuJuan Harris had given way to a collection of younger players. Head coach Mike McCarthy sat in on every meeting.
The transformation started days after the Packers' 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game. Coordinator Shawn Slocum was fired at the end of his unit's turbulent campaign, underscored by two significant gaffes against the Seahawks.
Crosby knows the decision to fire Slocum wasn't easy for McCarthy, but understands something had to be done. A new vision had to be presented for a special-teams unit that had fallen to last in the Dallas Morning News' annual statistical rankings.
"I know it was tough for Coach McCarthy," Crosby said during an appearance at North Hills Country Club on Wednesday to promote next month's Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation Golf Classic. "Him and Coach Slocum were really close and worked together for a long time. It's a change that was made and we're just going to have to adapt with it."
Slocum, an inaugural member of McCarthy's staff in Green Bay, coached Crosby during his entire eight-year NFL career through his highs and lows, including a tumultuous 2012 season when he converted only 63.6 percent of his field goals.
Slocum's support for Crosby didn't waver even during his 12-of-24 slump that season. Patience paid dividends when Crosby responded in 2013 with a career-high field goal rate of 89.2 percent.
Crosby says he was surprised when news broke that Slocum had been let go and that it will be "weird" not hearing his voice booming through the PA system during the offseason program and training camp.
If change was needed, however, Crosby was glad it was Zook replacing him.
"This business is tough, but things change and we move forward," Crosby said. "I think it was good Zook had a year with us last year. I was hoping with this change that it was going to be Coach Zook just because of that time we spent last year and the experience he has.
"Coach Zook has his own way, his own stuff, but also is keeping true to some of the things we've done in the past with Coach Slocum."
The former Florida and Illinois head coach joined the Packers' staff last year as Slocum's assistant. Zook previously worked with McCarthy in New Orleans in the early 2000s when they served as the Saints' defensive and offensive coordinators respectively.
The last time Zook was an NFL special-teams coordinator was with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996-98, but he hasn't had any difficulty picking up where he left off. So far, he's been preaching simplicity.
"Special teams, you don't want to simplify it too much, but it's: run fast, be very physical and try to overwhelm the other team with speed and being physical," Crosby said. "I think Coach Zook encourages that. That's his main thing. He's trying to simplify it as much as possible — run as hard as you can, be as physical as you can be and be in the right place."
The Packers' shaved a lot of experience this offseason with the departures of Jones, Harris, Brandon Bostick, Jarrett Boykin, Davon House and likely Bush, but they believe an infusion of young, hungry talent should help the unit turn things around.
There are a few returning faces, though. General manager Ted Thompson ponied up to bring back restricted free agent Sean Richardson after he agreed to a one-year, $2.55 million offer sheet with the Oakland Raiders that's almost entirely guaranteed. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound safety led Green Bay with 17 coverage tackles.
"I think we have a lot of rookies and a lot of young guys who are going to have to earn their spot on this team through special teams," Crosby said. "It's going to be very important. I think that competition, that turnover there obviously it can be a little scary because these are young guys.
"We had a good veteran group that did a lot of things, but it's also very positive where if these guys have that desire and work ethic to go out there and know that I have to perform here on special teams to be better at my position, to earn that spot it just helps our team."
Crosby admits things kind of "snowballed" on the special-teams unit last year. The biggest eyesore was the seven blocks they allowed on field goals (three), extra points (two) and punts (two). Punter Tim Masthay also struggled with confidence down the stretch, derailing what had been a strong start to the season.
Crosby's regained consistency has been one of the bright spots and it's his goal to build upon that. As 2012 taught him, there will be adversity. The key is the approach you take in overcoming it.
The Packers' special-teams unit now hopes for the same about-face Crosby did two years ago.
"People talk about 2012 sometimes and ask me about it — I'm thankful for it every day because it gave me a boost in my career again," said Crosby, who'll turn 31 in September and be an unrestricted free agent after next season.
"You play something so long. You do something so long there needs to be something that kicks you in the butt occasionally to say you have that desire, you still love it, what are you going to do to get better and how are you going to improve?
"I feel like I almost started new a few years ago and have a lot of playing time left in me."
New corner: The Packers have one spot left on their 90-man offseason roster after signing Northwest Missouri State cornerback Travis Manning on Thursday.
Manning, 24, had 185 tackles with 36 pass deflections and eight inteceptions in 53 games (37 starts), and won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2013. He recently participated in rookie minicamps with Dallas and Kansas City.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
Special teams leaders
Top tacklers on special teams last season:
• Sean Richardson 17
• Jayrone Elliott 15
• Morgan Burnett 11
• * Jarrett Bush 11
• * Brad Jones 9
• Casey Hayward 7
• Demetri Goodson 6
• * Jarrett Boykin 4
• * Davon House 4
• * Jamari Lattimore 4
* — not on current roster