Zook's high-energy approach fits special teams

Pete Dougherty
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Ron Zook during a 2010 game as Illinois head coach.

Let's start by dropping the pretense that special teams is one-third of an NFL game.

The Green Bay Packers last season had a little more 1,000 snaps on offense, a little more than 1,000 snaps on defense and just under 450 on special teams. So of about 2,500 plays, one-fifth were on special teams.

NFL teams win mainly because they're good from scrimmage. The Packers advanced to the NFC championship game because they had maybe the NFL's best offense, and in spite of ranking last in the Dallas Morning News' composite special-teams rankings.

Now that's not saying special teams don't matter. Obviously they do. The Packers know that from the botched onside kick recovery that helped cost them the NFC championship. But that's the point. To a large degree, NFL teams don't win games on special teams, but they can lose them.

So the questions coach Mike McCarthy faces as he decides how to replace recently fired Shawn Slocum as special teams coordinator are: What does he realistically want from his special teams? And will he get that if he hires the front-runner for the job, current special teams assistant Ron Zook?

As for what McCarthy is looking for, who doesn't want great? But with finite resources, plus free agency and a salary cap, no NFL team can have everything.

With that in mind, I asked two sources with NFL teams what they look for from special teams.

"Common sense," said a high-ranking scout with an NFC team. "A lot of it is too complicated, as opposed to learning two or three things that you're really good at. Enthusiasm. You want special teams to be fun. You don't want it to be punishment."

The other, a longtime NFL assistant coach, echoed the adage that special teams' primary job is to avoid big mistakes. It matters far less where a team finishes in special-teams rankings than whether its special teams make occasional mistakes that might turn a game.

"Your punt protection, kickoff coverage, no big plays," the coach said. "Hidden yardage. That's the thing that we always talk about. You have to try to gain a first down or two first downs (on your returns), and keep your (opponent's) returns under a first down on the defensive side."

Whoever McCarthy hires will be taking over special teams that ranked last in the Morning News' composite of 22 official NFL statistical categories. That's one measure of special teams, and a legitimate one.

Football Outsiders provides another based on analytics. It measures a team's offense, defense and special teams with a score called DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Without getting lost in the math, the scores are derived from cumulative NFL play-by-play data, and based on down, distance and field position relative to average NFL performance.

Green Bay Packers assistant special teams coach Ron Zook talks with Jamari Lattimore during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field last August.

By DVOA, the Packers' special teams in 2014 ranked No. 22 and in essence were about 2.3 percent below average. They were No. 19 in 2013, and going back by year to 2009, which was Slocum's first season as coordinator, they were Nos. 18, 8, 26 and 18.

My guess is Slocum could have survived the Packers' seven blocked kicks last season, as inordinately high as that number was. But even with no blocks, I doubt he would have survived Brandon Bostick's botched onside kick recovery against the Seahawks.

"When something that catastrophic happens at that time of year, someone has to take the fall," the assistant coach said of Slocum. "That's the NFL. It's unfortunate, but that's the world we live in, that's the league. Just ask Pete Carroll right now."

Zook, 59, is the front-runner to replace Slocum because of his assistant position last season and history with McCarthy. He's also been a special-teams coordinator in the NFL before, though that was nearly 20 years ago with the Pittsburgh Steelers, from 1996-98.

If he gets the promotion, he'll bring a different temperament than Slocum to the job, and presumably a scheme that's different in small and perhaps big ways as well. That doesn't mean the Packers' special teams will be any better than the last six seasons. It only means different.

Just as with Slocum, McCarthy and Zook have a personal history. They worked together with the New Orleans Saints in 2000 and '01, when McCarthy was offensive coordinator and Zook defensive coordinator. A USA Today story on Zook said the two were roommates for their first few months in New Orleans, before families moved.

An assistant coach who worked with Zook when he was the Steelers' special-teams coordinator in the '90s described a high-energy, high-strung colleague who badly wanted to coach on defense and eventually become a head coach. Zook fulfilled both ambitions. He eventually was defensive coordinator in the NFL with the Saints and head coach in college at Florida (2002-04) and Illinois (2005-11).

According to Football Outsiders rankings, Zook's special teams with the Steelers ranked No. 20 in 1996, and No. 16 in '97 and '98.

"Is he a good (special-teams) coach?" the former Steelers colleague said. "Yes, he's a good coach."

The former Steelers assistant said Zook was renowned with the Steelers for peppering players in meetings with "Zookisms," that is, pithy, funny and sometimes earthy sayings about football and life. One of his favorites was, "You've got to get your (pee) hot."

"He's extremely enthusiastic, and he's the same way on the field," the coach said. "He's going 100 mph on the field. In his 25 minutes (of special-teams practice) you didn't stop special teams-wise. It was boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And he was organized. Our special teams at Pittsburgh were pretty good."

The upside of such an approach addresses one of the issues the aforementioned scout raised: That playing special teams should be fun. The downside is that it might over time wear thin with veteran players.

"With some of the older players it did," the former colleague said. "But some of them loved it."

As special-teams assistant last year, Zook played a subordinate role, at least during training camp, the only time of the season when reporters are allowed to watch full practices.

Slocum directed the special-teams periods and did much of his communicating via a microphone hooked up to loudspeakers on the sidelines. Zook would have been hard to notice unless you were looking for him, and any on-field teaching he did appeared to be individual.

But it appears a given he'll be a strong presence if he gets the coordinator job.

"That's his style," the former colleague said. "He's enthusiastic, he's gung ho. … He works."

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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