GREEN BAY – If you’re a part of the Green Bay Packers special teams units these days, you are having all kinds of fun.
From Tom Crabtree’s fake-field goal touchdown on fourth-and-26 against Chicago, to John Kuhn’s fourth-down conversion deep in Packers territory on a fake punt against New Orleans, to last Sunday’s surprise onside kick recovery against St. Louis, coach Mike McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have pulled out all the risk-taking stops so far this season.
“Sometimes it’s tough to get guys to really work on special teams, but because we’re doing different things, guys are excited,” kicker Mason Crosby said as the special teamers prepped for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. “They know that opportunity to make big plays, and obviously the fact that we’re executing them gives coach a lot more confidence to call them in the games.”
But while the trickery has certainly grabbed the attention, something more important is at work here: The Packers’ special teams, which were once a major trouble spot under McCarthy, have grown into an area of strength.
While things haven’t been perfect – Crabtree’s protection miscue led to a blocked punt for a touchdown by the Houston Texans two weeks ago, and Crosby has missed three 50-yard field goals in three weeks, including a potential game-tying kick at Indianapolis – the Packers now boast quality specialists (Crosby, punter Tim Masthay, returner Randall Cobb), more-than-solid coverage and blocking units and the flair for the dramatic.
“Your heart beat beats a little bit faster, a little risk is involved. I guess we’re gambling a little bit,” special teams captain Jarrett Bush said of the trick plays. “We play to win. There are no second chances in a football game, you have to get as many opportunities as you can. We were trying to play to win the game, so we don’t look back and see what we should’ve done or could’ve done."
The most important thing the Packers have done, of course, is stock the special teams units with guys who truly take pride in their jobs there – which hasn’t always been the case under McCarthy.
“I think it’s always a challenge, because you look at the nature of it – you’re getting guys who were the top players at their positions in college, and most of them did not play a lot of special teams in college. So in most cases it’s entirely new for them; in a lot of cases they feel like it’s an added chore,” said Slocum, who was on McCarthy’s inaugural staff in 2006 as assistant special teams coach under Mike Stock before his promotion to coordinator in 2009. “But Mike started with the environment he’s created: ‘We’re going to play good special teams.’”
Added McCarthy: “There's an attitude over there. Frankly, before it was pulling teeth with some individuals in the past to perform at a high level on special teams. It's a whole different dynamic. We're really putting the stress and importance on the fundamentals. The volume of the scheme is minimal compared to prior years. It's just guys have really bought into the fundamentals and the speed and playing really physical. I think we're much improved there than in my earlier years."
Indeed, during McCarthy’s first five seasons – including in 2010, when they won Super Bowl XLV – the team was frequently at the bottom of legendary NFL columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings. Gosselin, now a general columnist for the Dallas Morning News, annually ranks the league’s 32 teams in 22 special-teams categories and assigns points according to their standing – one for best, 32 for worst.
In 2005, in coach Mike Sherman’s final season, the Packers finished dead last. They did so again in 2006, in McCarthy’s first season. In 2007, they finished tied for seventh, their best ranking under McCarthy. They plummeted to 26th in 2008 and 31st in 2009, then ranked 29th in 2010, which tied them with the 2009 New Orleans Saints for the lowest ranking ever for a Super Bowl champion.
But last year, the Packers finished tied for a respectable 13th, and while their point total (342.5) was well behind top-rated San Francisco (225.5), it still signified significant improvement. They have the look of a top-10 unit as they enter Sunday’s game against the Jaguars, whose special teams are coached by John Bonamego, the Packers’ special-teams coordinator from 2003 through 2005 under Sherman.
“I think there’s guys buying in – buying into the scheme, buying into what the coaches are saying – and then doing what we’re trained to do,” said Bush, who has been on the special teams units since the Packers claimed him on waivers from Carolina to star the 2006 season. “I think a lot of young guys see it as their opportunity to get on the field, and their chance to shine. Obviously everybody wants to be a starter, but they can’t all be. So until they get their opportunity to play on defense or offense, special teams is where they’ve got to make their name.
“You try to get them to see their opportunity, not see it (as an inconvenience). Some guys don’t see it, some guys embrace it. It’s a problem in the locker room (when special-teams players don’t buy in), but as a front office, it’s their job to see that and find guys who will. They found the right guys for this team to fit, to jell and have great chemistry.”
As a result, they’re having success and fun, too.
“I think there’s a certain satisfaction and their efforts in practice and preparation during the week is showing up on the field on Sunday,” Slocum said. “I see a real accountability from player to player, and I think that’s important.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.