The mood of the masses is a fickle mistress….and no one knows that better than Shawn Slocum. He has gone from whipping boy of the coaching staff to heading up the most consistent part of the Packers this season. Of course one more missed field goal by Mason Crosby or bad fake punt requiring Tim Masthay to throw out of the shotgun and many will probably be willing to drive him out of town again.
Special teams for the Packers has rarely been a pleasure to write about over the last few years. The Packers have routinely been near the bottom of the league in special teams efficiency, and it’s the phase of the game often feels forgotten about by the coaches and front office. This appears to be changing slowly however. The Packers have generally stabilized on special teams after finding a core group of players who are able to contribute in specialty roles (e.g. long snapper, kicker, punter, returner, etc.) or more generalized roles of players filling a position (e.g. gunner or blocker for returns). This is not to say that the Packers special teams are the classy of the NFL right now, they aren’t, but they have stabilized and have been the difference between winning and losing for the team on more than one occasion in 2012.
First let’s get the negatives out of the way….which means we are going to start talking about Mason Crosby. Crosby started the year strong in the first three games, but as the rest of the team has gelled and flourished since then, Crosby has started struggling. He’s missed five of his last ten since week 5 and has missed long fields and short field goals alike. Right now Slocum has described it as "a lack of good technique" which may suggest it is correctable. However, as any golfer can tell you, when bad technique gets into your rhyme it can also get into your head and do permanent damage to your game. It’s safe to say that Packer fans are a bit antsy when it comes to Crosby at the moment, he’s got to straighten out his game…and more important his kicks.
On the other hand Tim Masthay may be putting together a Pro Bowl caliber year. Right now he leads the league with punts inside the 20 with 24….by comparison he has only 4 touchbacks…not bad. His net average per punt is 39.8. This is not a great stat line for him, putting him at 19th in the league, but considering that if a Packer drive stalls it often stalls deep enough in the opponent’s territory where the former stat is more important than the later. Masthay has been helped by solid play from the coverage units as well. Right now the Packers have allowed 88 return yards on punts. Putting this unit in the top 10 for yards allowed. Again, not bad.
The interesting part about the field goal and punting units has been the gutsy play calling though. It’s hard to name a season where the coaching staff has shown as much testicular fortitude in calling a fake field goal or punt. Fourth and short deep in your own territory? Direct snap to John Kuhn (they picked up that first down). Fourth and 26 where you have to get to about the one for a first down? Fake field goal (went for a touchdown). Throw in an early onside kick and the play calling has been unexpected and impressive…..well except for one awful, awful fake punt which resulted in Tim Masthay trying to run the offense out of the shotgun. Seriously guys….never do that again.
Then finally there is Randall Cobb. Believe it or not, but Cobb right now is putting up about average numbers as a kick returner. He hasn’t broken one off for a touchdown yet this year and ranks 16th in the league for total kick return yards and average kick return yards. Despite this, it is doubtful that Packer fans would want anyone else back there. He is still electric with the football and it feels like he could break one and be gone at any time. On punts the raw numbers look a bit better, with Cobb ranking in the top ten for total yards and average per return (once you control for returners who have at least 5 returns for the season so far). The bottom line is the same though, Cobb makes things happen back there and is a welcome change from seeing Jordy Nelson or Tramon Williams go back and make a fair catch time after time.
Overall Grade For The Position Group: B
It’s hard to imagine wanting more out of the special teams units, other than Mason Crosby getting his head right. This is the first year in a long time where the special teams actually look special and not just there. This grade may smack as high to many, especially with the struggles of Mason Crosby as of late, but it has been the special teams that has consistently bailed out the offense and the defense throughout the year this year. That can’t be ignored. It’s also something the team may have to fall back on as injuries mount on both sides of the ball.