Death, taxes, and the Green Bay Packers’ special teams struggling. These appear to be the only certainties in life. Green Bay’s special teams finished 20th or lower in six of their last eight seasons. Clearly, a change is needed.
Even though they have a new special teams coordinator, internal hire Maurice Drayton, as well as an ostensible dedication to fixing the oft-maligned unit, nothing looks different through two preseason games. But regardless of the poor early showings, Packers fans shouldn’t worry quite yet. You will always be taxed. Eventually, we all will die. But maybe, just maybe, the Packers’ special teams will be good this year.
Hiring Drayton over an outside candidate is the first good sign. It means the talent and attitude for the oft-forgotten third phase of the game is right there in the building and that a new approach is all the Packers need.
In his initial press conference, Drayton revealed his coaching philosophy.
“I’ve always been a blue-collar guy, raised by a son of a Marine turned minister in a Methodist church,” he said. “Mom’s an educator, school teacher. So, we’ve always been blue-collar. To me, special teams is blue-collar.”
Drayton has taken this approach to heart. He has his team studying film to find the latest trends and philosophies around the league and preached a need for consistency, especially from his specialists.
However, the results haven’t manifested yet. The unit was unimpressive in the preseason opener against the Houston Texans, but that’s to be expected considering it was the first showing under a new coordinator, and 30 starters sat out.
But the unit was full-on ugly against the New York Jets. Highlights (lowlights?) include a 46-yard average on four kickoff returns, with a 73-yarder as the cherry on top, and a truly cringe-inducing 21-yard punt from J.K. Scott.
These are the same problems that plagued Rick Gosselin’s-29th ranked unit last year. Inconsistent punting, two punt-return touchdowns surrendered, and no clear answers in their own returners were just a few of the many problems Drayton’s unit needs to work on.
Drayton himself isn’t worried after two weeks. In his most recent press conference, Drayton said he’d be more worried if everything were perfectly fine in the preseason. He found it encouraging seeing his players use the techniques he’s been instilling.
Drayton added that joint practices with the Jets provided him valuable insight into the “nucleus” of his core players. A gradual improvement as the unit learns to play together and plenty of mistakes on tape for teaching moments are good things at this stage.
Also, circumstances must be taken into consideration. The Packers sat 30 starters against Houston and 32 against the Jets. Most of the players currently playing special teams are on the roster bubble. Many of these guys have never played together as a unit, and many more won’t be with the team in the next two weeks.
Preseason special teams all is about throwing what you have against the opponent and seeing what sticks. It’s an opportunity for these roster bubble players to prove what skills and determination they have. There are always surprise stars and duds. It’s simply unfair to expect full unit cohesion in these circumstances.
Both the primary kick and punt returners are rookies, and they need to adjust to life in the NFL. Kylin Hill and Amari Rodgers are looking to play roles on offense and special teams, and it may take a bit for them to be game-ready.
So what do the Packers need to actually improve their special teams performance? Time and consistency. Drayton needs to find his best guys to lead the unit. He needs to find a way to get consistency from J.K. Scott, or else he needs to find a new punter. He needs to find veterans willing to play a role.
The special teams rebuild can’t happen overnight. This might not be a pleasant endeavor to watch on a weekly basis, but Drayton needs live reps to discover what works and what doesn’t.
Drayton seems to have the mindset, the knowledge, and the grit to make something of the historically lackluster special teams group. The results haven’t been there yet, but it’s been two weeks of preseason. With time, perhaps a struggling Packers’ ST unit isn’t so inevitable after all.