Biggest playoff concern: All those blocked kicks
The Green Bay Packers' special teams are having the kind of season that can get an assistant coach or two fired.
Coordinator Shawn Slocum's protection units have had a staggering number of kicks blocked — seven in all, consisting of three field goals, two extra points and two punts. According to Sportingcharts.com, the previous team high in a season since 1990, which is as far back as the data goes, was three.
So now one of the most routine parts of an NFL game ranks as one of the Packers' biggest concerns heading into the playoffs.
Before going any further, let's be clear. The Packers finished the regular season 12-4, and only one of the blocks, a field goal at Buffalo, came in defeat. This hasn't made much, if any, difference on their record.
While special teams overall surely matter, strong special teams are hardly a must to achieve NFL success. The last five Super Bowls have featured only four teams ranked in the top 10 of the Dallas Morning News' aggregate special teams rating: Baltimore (No. 3 in 2012), New England (No. 5 in 2011), Seattle (No. 10 last season) and Pittsburgh (No. 9 in 2010).
On the other side, four teams have made it while ranked No. 28 or worse: Denver (No. 29) last season, the Packers (No. 29) in 2010, and New Orleans (No. 29) and Indianapolis (No. 28) in 2009. (Just for good measure, the Cleveland Browns finished No. 1 in the special teams rating in 2009 but had a 5-11 record).
Really, what NFL clubs need is their special teams to adhere to the old medical oath: First, do no harm.
This year, the Packers' special teams have done harm. Their opponents know it and will attack it. Unlike the long haul of the regular season, one big special teams mistake in the playoffs can send a good team home.
Just look to relatively recent NFL playoff history.
Anyone who followed the Packers in the 1990s knows how important Desmond Howard was as a return man in the Packers' run to the Super Bowl title in the 1996 season. He returned a punt for a touchdown and another to the San Francisco 49ers' 7 in the divisional round of the playoffs, and in the Super Bowl answered a New England touchdown in the second half with 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Packers celebrate Howard, but the 49ers and Patriots no doubt blamed their special teams.
Then there's Minnesota kicker Gary Anderson's missed 38-yard field goal attempt that would have sealed the 1998 season's NFC championship game with 2½ minutes left. It was Anderson's only miss in 40 attempts that year and gave Atlanta the chance to tie the game in regulation and win in overtime.
There's the Tennessee Titans winning — and Buffalo Bills losing — on the Music City Miracle kickoff return for a touchdown in the final seconds of a wild-card playoff game in the 1999 season. The Titans advanced to the Super Bowl.
There's San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, who ranks No. 4 on the NFL's all-time field goal percentage list but made only eight of 15 attempts in the playoffs. That included missing a 40-yarder in overtime of a home playoff loss to the New York Jets in the 2004 season, and misses from 36 and 40 yards in a three-point divisional-round loss to the Jets in the 2009 season, when the Chargers were seeded No. 2 in the AFC.
The Packers also are seeded No. 2 in the NFC this year, and their Super Bowl hopes are as realistic as anyone's. Just imagine if a blocked kick beats them in the playoffs.
To be clear, this isn't a call for Slocum's job. I've always found it difficult to judge assistant coaches from the outside looking in, and even within organizations, opinions vary on their performances.
I also think through the list of special teams coaches since I started covering the Packers in 1993: Nolan Cromwell (1992-97), Johnny Holland (1998), Steve Ortmayer (1999), Frank Novak (2000-02), John Bonamego (2003-05), Mike Stock (2006-08) and Slocum (2009-present).
All were among fans' most criticized and reviled assistants, judging from phone calls, letters and emails I've received over the years. It's part of being a special teams coach. Mistakes are obvious, catastrophic, and stand out far more than successes. Fans in most NFL cities probably are unhappy with their special teams coordinator.
Coach Mike McCarthy has a long history with Slocum. They worked together in 1990 as graduate assistants at the University of Pittsburgh, and when McCarthy became Packers coach in 2006 he hired Slocum as special teams assistant. He was grooming Slocum for the coordinator job, to which he promoted him in 2009.
After last season, McCarthy fired Slocum's assistant, Chad Morton, so he could bring in a more seasoned assistant. It didn't help.
McCarthy turned to Ron Zook, the former Florida and Illinois coach who was an NFL special teams coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996 to 1998. But if anything, the Packers' special teams have been worse than last year, when they finished No. 20 in the Dallas Morning News' rankings.
The ratings for this season aren't out yet, but the Packers are near the bottom of the league in three important categories: kickoff returning (No. 31 in yards per return and No. 23 in average starting point); kickoff coverage (No. 21 in yards per return and No. 30 in average starting point); and net punting (No. 31).
Punt returning has been excellent. Micah Hyde has two touchdowns and a 15.8-yard average that would rank No. 1 in the league if he had enough returns to qualify.
Overall, those low rankings, though not helpful, probably aren't that harmful, either.
Punter Tim Masthay is in an extended slump, but he's a talented player, and his struggles likely are as temporary as kicker Mason Crosby's were in the second half of 2012. Crosby has come back with two strong seasons.
On kickoff returns, the only question is why the Packers never gave seventh-round pick Jeff Janis a chance to replace DuJuan Harris. McCarthy and Slocum haven't offered a good reason publicly. Look for receiver Randall Cobb to handle plenty of kickoff returns in the playoffs.
Really, it's only the blocked kicks that matter, and a review of all seven reveals a myriad of errors.
On the blocked punts, guard Jamari Lattimore (against Miami) and long snapper Brett Goode (Philadelphia) appeared to simply whiff on blocks.
On a blocked field goal at Chicago, since-departed Derek Sherrod didn't come out of his stance enough at left tackle, which contributed to a cascade of problems that gave Willie Young a clean jump in the middle of the line.
On a blocked field goal at Buffalo, left guard Corey Linsley was pushed back by a double team, which allowed 6-foot-6 Mario Williams the block.
On the blocked field goal last week against Detroit, wing man Andrew Quarless blocked the man to his outside instead of inside, which gave Isa Abdul-Quddus a clean shot to smother the ball.
One of the blocked extra points was a dropped snap by Masthay. On the other, right guard Josh Boyd and tackle Lane Taylor couldn't stop Atlanta's Ra'Shede Hageman from bulling between them to tip Crosby's kick.
It hasn't helped that starting guards T.J. Lang (ankle) and Josh Sitton (toe ligaments) were held out of field-goal protection while playing through injuries. Lang returned to protection duties two weeks ago, but Sitton might be withheld from special teams for the rest of the season.
Still, that's not much of an excuse. Teams have to adjust to injuries all the time. It's McCarthy's call on whether responsibility lies more with the players or coaches, because ultimately it's on him.
Regardless, the Packers have shown weakness and can bank on playoff opponents going all out to exploit it. There will be no consoling this team if a blocked kick sends it home in the playoffs.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.