Silverstein: Packers' next coach must make fixing special teams a top priority

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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New York Jets' Andre Roberts (19) celebrates with the fans after his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown  during first half of the Green Bay Packers game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in East Rutherford.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Talk about a galvanizing moment.

It was exactly what was needed. It was decided on the football field, not in the standings or some stat sheet.

The final outcome in the Green Bay Packers’ come-from-behind 44-38 overtime victory over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium?

Nah, that was just a game against an inferior opponent whose coach won’t make it past next Monday.

We’re talking about that special teams effort.

If general manager Brian Gutekunst’s eyes weren’t beet red from watching the mess the Packers have been on special teams this season, they were Sunday after watching that unit nearly lose the game all on its own.

In the search for a new head coach, the No. 1 question on Gutekunst’s list, “Can you make Aaron Rodgers great again?” just dropped to No. 2 behind “Who is your special teams coach going to be?”

For all the success former coach Mike McCarthy had, he was never able to shift the yearly special teams matchups in his favor. Only once in his 13 years did the Packers rank in the top 10 (2007) in Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings and only two other times (’11 and ’12) did they rank in the top half of the league.

There were two 32nd finishes, one 31st and two 29ths.

McCarthy gets a bit of a break because then-general manager Ted Thompson refused to replenish openings on the roster with anybody but rookies, most of whom never played a lick of special teams since high school. It’s hard to succeed that way in the NFL.

But this season, Gutekunst gave special teams coach Ron Zook a bunch of veterans with which to work and a corps of athletic rookies with the speed, size and strength to overcome some minor mental errors.

It didn’t matter.

All through the season, special teams were a thorn in the team’s side.

And Sunday it was about as bad as it gets. If this had been a meaningful game and the pressure were cranked up a couple notches, who knows how many more errors would have been made?

If Gutekunst does anything, his coach of choice has to be someone with a strong commitment to special teams and then he must convince president/CEO Mark Murphy to hire him. The Packers might have ridden Aaron Rodgers’ arm (and legs) to victory over the 4-11 Jets, but they won’t be able to count on that happening against the Bears, Vikings, Eagles, Cowboys or Chargers, all of whom are on their schedule next season.

“I can’t speculate on who they hire,” kicker Mason Crosby said. “Obviously, being a special teamer, anytime someone new comes in you hope they have a focus on that and make sure all three phases are equally important.”

The litany of mistakes, misplays and misfortunes were so long, they must be embossed on Gutekunst’s brain.

For instance:

» Jets kick returner Andre Roberts, who came in ranked third in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 26.8-yard average, had four returns for 203 yards (50.8) and a touchdown.

» Cornerback Tramon Williams, a substitute punt returner and starting safety, got decked on a punt return and had to miss part of the game while he was evaluated for a concussion.

» Rookie wide receiver J’Mon Moore fumbled a kickoff return in the third quarter that led to the Jets taking a 35-20 lead. It looked like several players missed blocks because he got hit straight-on in the middle of the field.

» No one was in position to field a punt that bounced off the knee of Jets tight end Chris Herndon — making it a live ball — and out of bounds.

» The Jets converted a fake punt on fourth and 1 with 4½ minutes left in regulation that everyone in the building knew was going to be a fake given the Jets’ need to stop Green Bay’s momentum.

» Two penalties were called on special teams, holding on receiver Jake Kumerow that wiped out Moore’s 27-yard kickoff return in the first quarter and cornerback Tony Brown’s offsides on an extra point.

The returns were the most embarrassing because the Packers knew Roberts was one of the best in the league and they couldn’t find a way to keep it away from him.

On Roberts' 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Crosby left the ball too far in the center of the field and the pursuit wasn't able to correct for the placement.

“A couple of the kickoffs I just got under it a little bit and I wasn’t able to get the distance I wanted,” Crosby said. “I tried to go after (the 99-yarder), it was a right kick. The wind had been moving left to right there and it didn’t fade out. I wasn’t able to hit it as wide as I wanted.”

After he mishit that one, interim coach Joe Philbin or Zook should have come up with an alternate plan, such as squib-kicking or popping it up or just kicking it out of bounds because with 1 minute, 12 seconds left, Roberts returned another kickoff 51 yards to set up the game-tying field goal in regulation.

If the Jets had scored a touchdown instead of a field goal on their ensuing possession, the Packers would have lost.

“We had a couple of different calls during the course of the game,” Philbin said. “Ideally, we were going to kick them out of the end zone, but that doesn’t always happen.”

On the fake punt, it wasn’t clear whether anybody called it out or an adjustment was made based on the way the Jets lined up with their two wings inside and in lead-blocking formation. Last week, newcomer Fadol Brown sniffed out a Bears fake, called it out and then stopped the play himself.

Linebacker Antonio Morrison was lined up in the middle and not able to line up right over the center because rules prohibit it. He said he wasn’t sure whether anyone yelled out that a fake might be coming because he was locked in on his assignment.

“It’s a common fake in this league since they changed the rule,” Morrison said of prohibiting players from lining up over center.

As far as the return position, the Packers never found a viable alternative to Trevor Davis, whose season was marred by a hamstring injury. Part of that is on Gutekunst, but Zook’s choices for the position never seemed to work out, and the times the Packers did have a long gain, it was called back by penalty.

Their longest punt return of the year is 24 yards. Their longest kickoff return was Moore’s 37 in the second quarter.

It’s just another example of how ineffective special teams have been this season. And it’s a reason for Gutekunst and Murphy to make fixing it a priority on the next coach’s to-do list.



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