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“Special Teams,” a Heightened Emphasis

George Allen, the revolutionary head coach of first the Rams and later, the Redskins “Over-the-Hill Gang,” was the Father of Special Teams play. He was the first coach to focus on ST and, to my knowledge, the first head coach to specifically assign a coach to special teams. I believe his first ST Coordinator, was none other than Dick Vermeil, when he was a young buck and had been scouting in the late 60’s for Stanford. George Allen was the first head coach to stress the vital importance of special teams play. His teams spent, for that era, an inordinate amount of time on perfecting their special teams play. He would often say to his special team players before the game, “You’re going to win the game for us today!” He was a generation ahead of everyone else.

Did you realize that about one-sixth of all plays in an average NFL game, are special teams plays? That’s a fact. Now most NFL games are tight and quite often the difference in the final score is special teams play. Can you imagine what our record could’ve been last year? Call me whatever you’d like, I truly believe we could’ve won ten games last year, had our ST play been average.

I’d like to make a bold statement, which I know to be true: “We will not be a .500 team this year, if we don’t improve our special teams play.” Remember the blocked FG near the end of regulation against the Bears at Soldier Field? We out-played the Bears’ for about 52 of the sixty minutes. We’re tied at 17 and have a fairly short field goal blocked. They win on a 38-yard FG in OT. We lost at Minnesota by one on a FG that sailed barely, wide right. Not to pick on just one unit (the field goal team), overall in 2008 our special teams were pathetic. Okay, the only exception I could find was punt returns, in which we finished an impressive sixth. But, that’s it.

Consider these special teams statistics:
1. 20th in Kick Return Coverage
2. 26th in FG Percentage
3. 27th in Average Gross Punting Yardage
4. 27th in Offensive Starting Field Position
5. 28th in Defensive Starting Field Position
6. 32nd in Kickoff Return Yardage (ouch!)

There were two other statistics I couldn’t find, but, I’d bet we came out on the short-end, “penalties on special teams” and “turnover margin on special teams”. Now I’m well aware we were +7 takeaways vs giveaways for the season. But, I’d be willing to bet, we were minus one or two TOs on special teams.

It’s quite apparent we must dramatically improve our overall ST play and MM and TT have taken several initial steps to do so…

I believe step number one, was promoting Shawn Slocum to ST Coordinator. Slocum assisted Mike Stock for three years and already knows many of the players and I’m certain he’s getting well-acquainted with all our rookies and Derrick Mason. He’s coached in the college and pros for 18 years, so he’s experienced. He’s spent close to half that time coaching, you got it, special teams. He’s got his hands full. Yet, this appears to be a very talented group of players who may turn into an outstanding group of special team players. Let’s hope he can help develop a future Steve Tasker or Reyna Thompson, who were two All-Pro special teams dynamo’s (both were “gunners”). The gunners are the two outside players, one on each side, of the punt coverage teams. According to the old sage, John Madden, Thompson and Tasker were two of the all-time best gunners in NFL history.

Mike McCarthy is focusing on a huge improvement on our ST play this year, and I’m going to tell you why I believe just that. Remember the roster cuts and the addition of Derrick Mason in the Tony Moll trade? Well, it just has become crystal clear, that some of the players we’ve retained may turn-out to be stars of our special teams. I’m talking about Brandon Underwood, Jarrett Bush (already an outstanding player on ST), Brad Jones, TJ Lang, Quinn Johnson and Brett Swain just to name a few. Oh, by the way, did you know Clay Matthews III was a 3-time ST Player-of-the-year at USC? That Brandon Underwood, after transferring from Ohio State for his senior year at University of Cincinnati, starred as their main “gunner” and was Cincinnati’s ST “P-o-t-yr” in 2008? Or that TJ Lang played STs for three years at Eastern Michigan? Brad Jones played special teams for four years at Colorado, where he excelled and says he “loves” playing STs. Same with Quinn Johnson and Brett Swain. They “love” special teams. So, I think you get my drift. Maybe, just maybe, with this as our core, a solid group of young, athletic, and talented players who’ve excelled at special teams-don’t you think we just could be one helluva lot better than in 2008? I sure think so. Maybe Ted Thomson knows what he’s doing after all…

I know I’ve only discussed the tip of the iceberg…I never mentioned the holder for this year is Matt Flynn. Not important? Tell that to any kicker. Remeber the Super Bowl in which Scott Norwood missed a FG by about two feet to the right to allow The G-Men to win 20-19? Well, according to Morten Anderson, it was because the holder didn’t fully rotate the laces to the front-they were pointing to the right. Which according to M. Anderson, based on aerodynamics, was enough on a 40+ yard kick, to fade the ball to the right. Doubt you’d heard that one before. Oh, and also, I’m sure you’ve never heard of our Long Snapper (no, he’s not a fish-that’s a red snapper)- Brett Goode. You probably won’t hear his name again this year unless he were to flub a snap (never happens with him). Brett Goode. Helluva a long snapper and a great gin rummy player.

Listen, I know I’ve forgotten to mention our punter, Jeremy Kapinos, who outdueled Durant Brooks in the preseason. Let’s hope he’s the answer to our 2008 punting woes. The revolving door policy last year was a distraction. Let’s not repeat it. The thing I like about Jeremy, is he’s got a big leg-I mean it’s huge! I’m speaking figuratively, of course. He’s not a freak. JK should be used to our Green Bay weather, as he interned at Penn State under JoPa, were the weather tends to be rainy and cold, with swirling winds and the crowds are raucous. I like this kid. Also, Mason Crosby is prepared for a great year. The kicks he missed last year, this year he’s going to make them. He also has a huge leg, but, is not much of a gin rummy player but, don’t play him in backgammon. Unless you want an ass-whoopin’.

Just so I don’t get hate mail from all our other special teamer’s, I’m going to try and name most of the rest, I haven’t already mentioned:
1.Desmond Bishop
2.Brandon Chillar
3.John Kuhn
4.Korey Hall
5.Spencer Havner
6.Mike Montgomery
7.Scott Wells
8.Breno Giacomini
9.Evan Dietrich-Smith
10.Tramon Williams
11.Jordy Nelson
…they are to a one, “stud hoss” special teamers…
Okay, I know I haven’t listed everyone, but, I tried.

In closing, remember Desmond Howard? What one play sticks out in your mind of his entire career?…Get my point. We vastly improve our special teams, and maybe, just maybe, we could go places…

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6 Responses to ““Special Teams,” a Heightened Emphasis”

  1. Brian says:

    Awesome piece. I think you are 100% spot on … special teams is critical and Packers have made serious effort to improve. Now we’ll see if they do.

    • John Zoul says:

      Brian, Thanks for your comment.
      Are you as excited about the coming season as I am?
      Also, please feel free to give me ideas of other columns you’d like me to focus on writing in the near future…

  2. FAUJim says:

    Great Post, very in depth stuff….I’m also a fan of what Jason Wilde wrote…

    What do you think?

    • John Zoul says:

      FAU Jim, Read Jason Wilde’s take on Green Bay’s special teams and I must say, he’s a helluva a writer. Very well written. I see why you keep track of his column. He answered a question I had concerning penalties on special teams-24 last year. I knew we’d had a few big runs called back and several penalties that put us in pitiful field position. But, 24, I thought that was a TV show, not the number of penalties we’d had last year on special teams. That’s one-and-a-half penalties per game from special teams. Not good. I must say, if we’re serious about winning the NFC North, we cannot have anywhere near that number this year. Five stars all the way for Wilde, his writing is thought-provoking and astute.

      Please keep in touch. You’re obviously a knowledgeable and passionate Packers’ fan and I love that…Thanks.

  3. MacDaddy says:

    Really good stuff. I think the Packers overall are much improved this year. We’ll see.
    Keep your keen insights coming!!

  4. John Zoul says:

    MacDaddy, thanks for your comment. We’ll hopefully see improved ST play Sunday night from the Pack. Whichever team wins the ST battle, will most likely be the winner.

    It’s also going to be interesting seeing Jay Cutler slinging to a rather pedestrian receiver corps. Desmond Clark and Olsen are excellent TEs, though. I hope we can sustain pressure and create a few TOs.

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