The Green Bay Packers’ special teams sure picked a heck of a time to have their greatest meltdown of the year. Chances are, you found yourself saying “I knew this would happen” at some point during Saturday’s game. Whether it was after the blocked field goal or the blocked punt, it doesn’t really matter — the truth is, this was a disaster that’s been brewing for some time, one whose roots run back to the very first days of the Matt LaFleur era.
Assembling a coaching staff is the first big test for any new head coach, and in January 2019, LaFleur was all-in on the premier special teams coach available. The Miami Dolphins, then in the process of hiring a new head coach, had passed on Darren Rizzi in favor of Brian Flores. Rizzi had been the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator since 2010, adding assistant head coach duties in 2016. But with Flores on the job, Rizzi was a free agent, and LaFleur pursued him intently.
But after a visit in Green Bay, Rizzi left without a deal — though he had an offer. A low one, too low to entice him to Green Bay. The Packers reportedly upped their offer later on, but it was too late. Rizzi was bound for New Orleans, and the Saints wouldn’t make the same mistake, declining to lowball the man considered to be the best special teams coordinator available.
Instead, the Packers hired Shawn Mennenga, who had never held the primary special teams coordinator position in the NFL. He’d been Vanderbilt’s special teams coordinator for a single season, but prior to that, his only NFL experience on special teams was spending 2011-17 as an assistant special teams coach for the Cleveland Browns. That he’d crossed paths with Mike Pettine — whom LaFleur was retaining as his defensive coordinator — while there was surely a coincidence.
Mennenga’s tenure was brief and bad, and his replacement Maurice Drayton’s has been worse. But Rizzi’s teams in New Orleans have been exceptional for most of his time there. The Saints finished 2019 and 2020 ranked fifth in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA metric. And although they fell to 16th in 2021, most Packers fans would probably would take a middle-of-the-pack finish over finishing the season with too few men on the field.
Special teams wasn’t the only reason the Packers lost to the 49ers, that’s true. But if their special teams were merely competent instead of a flaming manure pile, the Packers would probably be preparing for the NFC Championship game right now, readying themselves for a frigid rematch with the Los Angeles Rams. Instead, they’re left wondering what could have been, a question they’ve likely been asking for some time now given how their special teams have performed under their two non-Rizzi hires.
The Packers missed on Rizzi and compounded their mistake by hiring two other coaches who quickly showed they were in over their heads. By declining to pay up in 2019, the Packers merely kicked the bill down the road. It came due on Saturday in spectacular fashion.