Packers making special teams a priority
Last in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - Having reached respectability, do the Green Bay Packers now dare to dream of ranking among the NFL’s heavy hitters when it comes to special teams?
Kicker Mason Crosby, the most senior component of the Packers’ kicking game, certainly does.
The Packers’ 17th-place finish in the Dallas Morning News’ annual statistical breakdown of special-teams performance came after an overhaul by coach Mike McCarthy. They were 32nd in 2014.
“We don’t look at those numbers and shoot to beat that,” Crosby said Wednesday. “But we don’t want to just be kind of middle of the pack, not doing much but not doing anything wrong.
“We’re going to be fundamentally sound in coverage, but we want to go out and make something happen. Impact plays are where those numbers jump.”
The No. 17 finish was the fourth-best during the decade of McCarthy. In those 10 years the Packers’ overall rank is 30th, ahead of only Carolina and Indianapolis.
The Morning News began its analysis of special teams in 1985.
Although the Packers’ kicking game under Mike Holmgren (1992-’98) and Mike Sherman (2000-’05) was steady and occasionally game-changing, Green Bay never was elite.
In those 31 years, the best that the Packers could muster were fourth-place finishes under coach Lindy Infante (and special-teams coach Howard Tippett) in 1990 and under Holmgren (and Nolan Cromwell) in ’93.
An executive in personnel with experience working for several NFL teams has suggested several times special teams never had to be a priority in Green Bay because 25 years with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers under center made points easy to come by.
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Crosby cited injuries for some of the more recent woes that also included last-place collapses in 2005 and ’06.
Probably a more plausible explanation is the winter weather that can play havoc with the kicking game at Lambeau Field.
“Punting and kicking numbers, things like that,” Crosby said. “Come November, those numbers are going to go down.”
The upgrade a year ago wasn’t the result of the new coordinator, Ron Zook, knowing more than Shawn Slocum, who coordinated from 2009-’14, according to Crosby.
“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “It was the situations that occurred and coach McCarthy said, ‘It’s time to make a change. Let’s see if we can’t create a spark.’
Crosby said special teams in 2015 “were emphasized, from the top down.”
Zook, who assisted Slocum in 2014 after spending two years out of football, said, “Where we got better more than anything was Mike gave us the time.”
Neither Crosby nor cornerback Demetri Goodson thought the portion of practice allotted to special teams was appreciably greater last year than the year before.
“But Coach Mike would talk about it more in team meetings,” Goodson said. “If someone wasn’t running hard he’d cut it onto film and show it.
“I wouldn’t say it was more coaching. Moreso, it’s players buying in. Big time. They made it the main focus.”
Zook, who became an NFL special-teams coordinator for the first time since 1998, called last year “decent.”
“We’ve got to get better,” Zook said. “We know the issues we had last year. We really worked on our (kickoff-return) blocking techniques. We’ve got to do the same with our punt-return team this year. That’s a major, major emphasis.”
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The Packers ranked 11th in kickoff-return average (24.5) even though none of Jeff Janis’ 14 runbacks (29.0) came until Game 10. The early-season starter, Ty Montgomery (31.1 in seven), and rookie Trevor Davis also are considerations.
“He’s really just straight-line,” an NFC personnel director said. “It’s if he can find a crease and hit it.”
Micah Hyde didn’t break a punt return all season; his longest in 30 cracks went 17 yards. Davis, with eight punt returns (8.8) and 13 kickoff returns (32.6) in college, is interesting.
“(Davis) looks good,” Zook said. “Very relaxed catching punts. He’s got a jet in his tail. You can’t coach that. I can’t, anyway.
“(Hyde) can do it. He’s got three for touchdowns. He catches it good. There’s some things he’s got to improve on but we might have let it slip a little bit.”
After completing his third strong season in a row Crosby received a four-year, $16.1 million ($5 million guaranteed) contract March 2. His average per year of $4.025 million ranked third behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski.
Crosby also ranked as one of just five full-time kickers to bat 1.000 on extra points (41 of 41, counting playoffs) and averaged a career-best 70.9 yards on kickoffs.
“It takes a special bird to kick off here in the winter,” Zook said. “Windy, rain, he don’t care. He’s consistent, level-headed.
“In my opinion he had one bad kick last year: the Detroit game (52 yards with five seconds left and the Packers trailing, 18-16). No one felt worse about it than him.”
The four-year, $5.465 million extension punter Tim Masthay signed in July 2012 expires after this season. For the second straight summer the Packers have signed a free agent to challenge.
“He was just a little up and down last season but it’s such a hard place to kick,” said one special-teams coach for a team that played Green Bay in 2015. “You’ve got to take that into consideration.
“From knowing the kid, I love the guy’s demeanor. Because he doesn’t get all freaked out about it. That’s worth something. Those kind of guys, you don’t miss ’em until they’re gone.”
On the one hand, Masthay’s net punt average of 40.3 broke Jerry Norton’s team record of 39.2 that held for 52 years.
“He probably had a better year than people who look at that stuff say,” Zook said. “Net punt is the No. 1 statistic.”
On the other hand, Masthay’s average hang time of 4.09 seconds tied his career worst and was far off his career-best of 4.35 in 2012. He also ranked 25th in gross average (43.9), 23rd in touchback rate and 31st in inside-the-20 rate.
“Tim has to punt better at times,” said Zook. “Consistency was the thing.”
Rookie Peter Mortell, the first Green Bay high school grad to sign with the Packers since 2005, was a four-year starter at Minnesota. Zook said he appeared to be a better prospect than Cody Mandell, who was cut three days before the first exhibition game last year.
“Peter has come in and done a great job,” Zook said. “He was inconsistent in college but he never had a guy (full-time coach) to work with and I think he had two or three different snappers. Ball was all over the place.”
In their first competition of training camp, Masthay’s average hang time was 4.43 seconds in eight punts Tuesday compared to Mortell’s 4.28 in seven.
Until Brett Goode is fully recovered from his reconstructive knee surgery of seven months ago, Rick Lovato is the long snapper. His future could rest on how he handles protections.
“Protection is so key,” Zook said. “He doesn’t have as much experience (blocking) because in college (Old Dominion) they snap it and run.”
When the Packers elected not to re-sign Jarrett Bush after nine seasons, Zook looked at assistant Jason Simmons and wondered, “How do you replace Jarrett Bush?”
In the end, safety Chris Banjo came through as new special-teams captain and both Janis and Goodson filled in admirably as punt gunners.
“In special teams you don’t get second down or third down,” Zook said . “I don’t want to hear, ‘My bad.’ It’s got to be good."
PACKERS BY POSITION: SPECIALISTS
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Mason Crosby 6-1 200 31 D6-’07 Colorado
Has made an NFL-record 20 straight field goals in the playoffs. His post-season mark of 92% (23 of 25) is tied for second with John Kasay (23 of 25) behind Stephen Gostkowski (92.3%, 24 of 26) among kickers with at least 25 attempts.
Tim Masthay 6-1 ½ 200 29 FA-’10 Kentucky
Here are his career net punt rankings: 14th in 2015, 30th in ’14, 21st in ’13 and ’12, tied for 19th in ’11 and 17th in ’10. His career mark is 38.7.
Peter Mortell 5-11 199 23 FA-’16 Minnesota
Played at Green Bay Notre Dame. First began to dream about an NFL career in the fifth grade when his late grandfather Jerry mentioned that his leg looked pretty strong.
LONG SNAPPERS (1)
Rick Lovato 6-2 250 23 FA-’15 Old Dominion
Four-year snapper for the Monarchs. First ODU player to appear in an NFL game. Ran 5.12, vertical jump of 25 ½, broad jump of 8-6, 20 reps on the bench press and Wonderlic score of 19. Short arms (30), small hands (9).
Acquisition categories: D6 means sixth-round draft choice, FA means free agent.