ESPN Wisconsin

Photo/US Presswire
Kicker Mason Crosby's struggles were a season-long issue last year

ST: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
2
Mason Crosby
K
6-1
207
28
6
Colorado
61
Brett Goode
LS
6-1
255
28
5
Arkansas
8
Tim Masthay
P
6-1
200
25
3
Kentucky
18
Randall Cobb
KR/PR
5-10
192
22
2
Kentucky
10
Jeremy Ross
KR/PR
6-0
215
24
1
California

The good news:  Despite Crosby’s shocking struggles a year after going 24 for 28 on field-goal attempts, the Packers’ special teams units still fared well in the annual rankings. According to Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, who has been doing his composite special teams rankings for 33 years, the Packers ranked No. 12 in the 32-team league in 2012. The top 10 teams were Minnesota, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, Seattle, San Diego, the New York Giants, Buffalo, Chicago and Arizona. Since special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum replaced Mike Stock in 2009, the Packers have ranked 31st in 2009, 29th in 2010, tied for 13th in 2011 and now 12th in 2012. The Packers' best ranking under head coach Mike McCarthy came in 2007, then the group finished tied for seventh. The group also had some memorable plays: Tight end Tom Crabtree’s fake-field goal touchdown on fourth-and-26 against Chicago; fullback John Kuhn’s fourth-down conversion deep in Packers territory on a fake punt against New Orleans; a successful surprise onside kick recovery against St. Louis; and a blocked punt by Davon House against Jacksonville. But there was also the boneheaded punt return lateral at Chicago and Ross’ game-turning muffed punt in the season-ending loss to San Francisco.

The bad news:  What in the world happened to Crosby? The veteran kicker got a horrible case of the yips after making his first five field-goal attempts to start the season, at one point missing 12 of 24 attempts before finishing the season at 21 for 33 (63.6 percent). The Packers stood by their man through it all, refusing to bring in another kicker to compete with him or motivate him. The San Francisco 49ers did the exact opposite with their struggling kicker, as David Akers got postseason competition from Billy Cundiff, although Akers never lost his job.

“I’m impressed by his overcoming adversity and finishing strong. Disappointed in the body of work, particularly coming off an excellent year last year. But I truly believe he’ll learn from that and move on,” Slocum said. “Overcoming some adversity to finish strong at the end of the year, it indicated what kind of character he has. He kept his head down and continued to work and finished on a good note.” It will be interesting to see whether the Packers decide to bring a kicker in for training camp to provide competition this summer.

The big question: Given that Cobb emerged in his second NFL season as the Packers’ top pass-catcher as Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson battled injuries, has Cobb become too valuable on offense to continue as the full-time return man? It’s a question McCarthy wrestled with late in the season, and he eventually relented and made Ross both the punt and kickoff guy against San Francisco. Although Ross’ muffed punt got him yanked from the playoff loss to the 49ers, he remains on the roster and remains a consideration for the return job, having flashed potential on both kickoffs and punts late in the year while filling in for Cobb during the second half of a Dec. 23 victory over Tennessee, when Cobb went out with knee and ankle injuries, and again in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale at Minnesota. Ross had a 58-yard punt return against the Titans, then had a 44-yard kickoff return and a 32-yard punt return against the Vikings.

“I have confidence in Jeremy Ross,” Slocum said. “I think he has the potential to be a very good player.” But, Slocum added, “Randall Cobb is our returner.” Whether it stays that way, we shall see.

Offseason outlook:  Fixing whatever ailed Crosby and getting him back to his 2011 form is vital. While he seemed to right the ship late, making his last four regular-season field goals before going 2 for 2 in the playoffs, there will still be questions about him until he shows he’s put his struggles behind him. Including those two playoff successes, his percentage was 65.7 percent, well below the league average of 84.4 percent. One guy that that Packers don’t have to worry about is Masthay, who was the picture of consistency. In 2010, he tied the franchise record for net punting average at 37.6, improved it to 38.6 last season and was even better in 2012 at 38.9. He also finished seventh in the NFL in punts inside the 20-yard line (30) and had just five touchbacks in 70 punts.

The most interesting issue is what to do with Cobb and Ross – or another return candidate. It’s too bad Ross made such a critical error in such a critical situation, since he’d made a very favorable impression – even with bobbling the botched throw-back lateral in Chicago – to that point.

“He just committed the No. 1 error that you can’t do, you have to catch the ball before you run. I know he was thinking about making a play because he had done that against Minnesota, had gotten the ball off the 10-yard line out to the 20,” Slocum said. “I know that was going through his mind and he was overly aggressive. That play really hurt us in that ballgame. We had a one-score lead and a chance to get the ball back and score again.”

– Jason Wilde