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Last in a series.

Packers two-a-days: Special teams

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers might have won Super Bowl XLV, but they did it with special teams that remained near the bottom of the league.

Continuing the trend that has been the case throughout coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers scored poorly in the annual NFL special teams rankings in February by Rick Gosselin, the esteemed NFL columnist from the Dallas Morning News.

The Packers finished 29th, ahead of only the New York Giants, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers in the 32-team league.

Gosselin ranks each team in 22 different categories and then takes their ranking in each department and tallies it up for a composite ranking. Here are the complete rankings, where the lower the score, the better the team fared:

1. New England 269
2. Tennessee 274
3. Cleveland 277
4. Chicago 280
4. Oakland 280
4. Seattle 280
7. NY Jets 294
8. Baltimore 311
9. Pittsburgh 314
10. Atlanta 318.5
11. Jacksonville 332
12. Arizona 346
13. Washington 348
14. Philadelphia 350.5
15. Detroit 359.5
16. St. Louis 362.5
17. San Francisco 378.5
18. Minnesota 384
18. New Orleans 384
20. Cowboys 387
21. Tampa Bay 388
22. Houston 405
23. Carolina 405.5
24. Kansas City 407.5
25. Miami 408
26. Denver 412.5
27. Buffalo 413
28. Cincinnati 421.5
29. Green Bay 441
30. NY Giants 445.5
31. Indianapolis 458.5
32. San Diego 480.5

In 2009, the Packers finished 31st, with only the Carolina Panthers faring worse. They finished last in 2005 and 2006 and 26th in 2008. Their one good season under McCarthy was 2007, when they tied for seventh.

At 29th, the Packers’ finish ties the lowest ever for a Super Bowl champion, tying the 2009 New Orleans Saints.

If the Packers are to improve their standing in Gosselin’s composite rankings, the most obvious area for improvement is on returns.

Despite improvements in a variety of areas – fewer penalties, better coverage units, more consistent punting from Tim Masthay than from his predecessors – the low ranking can be traced most to the Packers’ lack of an explosive return game. The Packers haven’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum turned the trick in 2000, and the Packers’ 20.1-yard combined average on kickoff returns ranked them 26th in the 32-team league. Their 7.9-yard punt-return average ranked 22nd.

After return specialist Will Blackmon was released at the end of camp, the Packers went with wide receiver Jordy Nelson as their initial kickoff man and No. 2 cornerback Tramon Williams as their punt returner. When Nelson struggled, they tried cornerback Pat Lee, running back James Starks and No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields, who couldn’t catch a cold in training camp but gradually improved his ball security throughout the year. Nevertheless, Nelson managed a 22.5-yard average (51 long) and Shields a 21.5-yard average (49 long).

On punts, coach Mike McCarthy stuck with Williams even as he evolved into one of the NFL’s top five cover men, content to risk Williams’ health because no one else was sure-handed enough to assume the role.

“We have guys that are true kick returners because they are on an NFL team and on our team. That is their job,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said in defense of his group of returners in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLV. “Tramon Williams has done (punt returns) for a long time for us, since he has been with us. We have opted to use several guys on our kickoff return game this year and that is the way we are built and the way we will move forward. It has been a pretty good recipe because of who we are. ”

Actually, it wasn’t a good recipe at all. It was more a case of using whatever ingredients were in a relatively bare cupboard. But with the selection of Kentucky wide receiver Randall Cobb in the second round of the NFL Draft – plus the addition of undrafted free agent wide receiver Shaky Smithson of Utah – the Packers are hoping they’ve landed a player who can turn the momentum of games on returns.

In college, Cobb returned 44 kickoffs during his final two seasons, averaging 24.6 yards per return with no touchdowns and a long of 46 yards. On 63 career punt returns in three seasons, Cobb averaged 9.8 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Smithson, meanwhile, played two seasons at Utah after transferring from East Los Angeles Community College. As a senior last year, he returned 30 punts for 572 yards (19.1-yard average) and two touchdowns and also returned 21 kickoffs for 507 yards (24.1-yard average).

If Cobb or Smithson – or, for that matter, Shields with another year of experience – proves to be a game-changing returner, the Packers special teams would get a much-needed lift. At the same time, the free-agent departure of fullback Korey Hall, the team’s leading special-teams tackler last season, hurts the coverage units.

As for the specialists, the Packers re-upped with kicker Mason Crosby on a five-year, $14.75 million deal when free agency began, but the specialist who proved most valuable last season was Masthay, whose clutch punting in the final two meetings with the Chicago Bears neutralized Devin Hester.

QUICK READ: SPECIAL TEAMS

Depth chart
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
2
Mason Crosby
K
6-1
207
26
 5
Colorado
61
Brett Goode
LS
6-1
255
26
 4
Arkansas
8
Tim Masthay
P
6-1
200
24
 2
Kentucky
 
18
Randall Cobb
KR
5-10
191
20
 R
Kentucky
 
Shaky Smithson
KR
5-11
202
23
 R
Utah
 
Burning Question
Is Cobb a difference-maker?

That is the question that special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum will have to answer during camp, where Cobb is at a disadvantage at wide receiver because of the time missed due to the lockout. That’s not the case at returner, however. While he’ll still have to learn the blocking schemes, Cobb can show his natural talent and be an impact player if he’s as good as the team seems to think he is in the return game.

On the rise
Masthay.

The Packers have let good punters go before – letting Craig Hentrich leave remains one of ex-GM Ron Wolf’s biggest regrets – but the release of Jon Ryan at the end of training camp in 2008 was a colossal mistake. Derrick Frost and Jeremy Kapinos were both busts in his place, and it wasn’t until Masthay won the punting job in training camp last year over Australian import Chris Bryan that the position finally began looking up. Punting in Green Bay, Masthay will never lead the league in gross average (43.9 yards) but his net (37.6) was one of the best in team history, and it appears the Packers have finally found a keeper.

Stock falling
Crosby

It’s an unfair category to put Crosby in, given that he did make 12 of 14 field-goal attempts down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. But another year with 78 percent accuracy on field goals just isn’t going to cut it, not at the price tag he now carries after getting a $3 million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $14.75 million deal. Crosby does kick in inclement weather and does trot out for a few 50-yard field goals that other kickers would never try, but he’s 1-for-4 on potential game-winning kicks and needs to hit on a higher percentage to prove his worth.

The most interesting man (not in the world, but at the position)
Goode.

The unassuming long-snapper earned himself a contract extension late in the season, and while he may be the most anonymous guy in the locker room – his biggest claim to fame was taking over departed quarterback Brett Favre’s locker following the melodrama of the summer of 2008 – he’s also the most reliable. Goode hasn’t truly botched a snap since he arrived just before the 2008 regular-season opener. In addition, he’s one of the more well-liked guys in the locker room, including by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and is an engaging storyteller as well.

Key competition
Punt returner.

It’s hard to imagine the Packers would allow a player as important as Tramon Williams risk life and limb returning punts. Whether it’s Cobb or Smithson or Sam Shields or a yet-to-be-discovered talent, putting a Pro Bowl cornerback and your best coverage player on returns is silly, regardless of his playmaking ability. The fearless, team-first Williams would never beg off the job, but it’s on the coaches to find a viable replacement so Williams can focus on being one of the top 5 cover corners in the NFL.

Noteworthy

The last time the Packers returned a kickoff for a touchdown, Jordy Nelson was a sophomore in high school in Kansas, Shawn Slocum was coaching for his dad at Texas A&M and Mike McCarthy had just gotten his first offensive coordinator gig in New Orleans. It was Nov. 19, 2000, when Allen Rossum returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown at Lambeau Field to help the Packers beat the Indianapolis Colts under first-year head coach Mike Sherman. In the 167 regular-season games since, 53 different Packers players have returned a kickoff for the team, and none has ever reached the end zone. In the decade before that, the Packers had eight regular-season kickoff return touchdowns, by Darrell Thompson (76-yarder in 1990), Charles Wilson (82-yarder in 1991), Robert Brooks (95-yarder in 1993, 96-yarder in ’94), Don Beebe (90-yarder in 1996), Roell Preston (100- and 101-yarders in 1998) and Basil Mitchell (88-yarder in 1999). Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in regular-season action, but no one will ever forget his 99-yard score against the New England Patriots at the Louisiana Superdome.

Quoteworthy

“Mason’s very solid as a player. He needs to take a step in his future making walk-off field goals. He’s been very solid. The one quality I think is really good is he rarely misses two in a row. He may miss one, but he comes back, he’s level-headed and he makes the proper adjustment to make the next one.” – Slocum, on Crosby.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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