Green Bay Packers

Cultural Problems Led To Green Bay's Special Teams Failures

Photo credit: Mark Hoffman (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports)

Special teams problems are nothing new for the Green Bay Packers. Miscues, poor performance, and lack of investment have been frequent for the franchise at least for the last seven years. Since the unit was a critical factor in the overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship game, Green Bay’s approach to the phase has made it clear that there is a cultural failure to build the unit. And that’s the reason why Maurice Drayton is the coordinator.

From 2009 to 2014, Shawn Slocum was the special teams coordinator. He had previously been the assistant special teams coach, beginning when the Packers hired Mike McCarthy in 2006. Although Slocum was part of the Super Bowl champion coaching staff in 2010, the last years of his tenure were problematic. It was enough when the Seahawks came back to win the NFC with a fake field goal that turned into a touchdown pass from punter Jon Ryan to offensive tackle Garry Gilliam. Then, later in the game, tight end Brandon Bostick extended his role during an onside kick play and allowed Seattle to recover the ball. Both plays were essential in Green Bay’s heartbreaking loss.

The Packers fired Slocum after that season. No surprise there. But McCarthy’s replacement for him was uninspiring: He promoted assistant special teams coach Ron Zook. The Packers were 17th, 21st, 14th, and 25th in special teams DVOA rankings in the following four seasons. The unit’s performance, led by the former Florida and Illinois head coach, caused an infamous trend among Packers fans on social media: Fire Ron Zook. The Packers didn’t exactly fire him, but Matt LaFleur opted not to retain him when he became the head coach in 2019.

During that offseason, LaFleur had to form a new coaching staff. The best option to coordinate the special teams was probably Darren Rizzi, a former Miami Dolphins assistant with a solid track record. LaFleur interviewed him, but the Packers decided it was not worth the money. They went cheap. Rizzi ended up with the New Orleans Saints, where he built one of the most solid units in the NFL. Green Bay hired Shawn Mennenga.

Mennenga had been the Cleveland Browns’ assistant special teams coach from 2011 to 2017 when success in Cleveland seemed very far away. In his first two seasons in Green Bay, Mennenga led the 18th and 25th-ranked STs in DVOA. After the 2020 season, the Packers also fired him.

The expectation should be that the Packers would bring some external football mind to manage a lost unit this time, with different a background and from another coaching tree. Yet this time there wasn’t only one promotion but two. LaFleur elevated former assistant special teams coach Maurice Drayton to coordinator, and he promoted former NFL safety Rayna Stewart from ST quality control to assistant.

The result, as we all know, was terrible. Green Bay had the worst special teams in football in 2021, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. The phase was responsible for at least four crucial mistakes during the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers: a field goal miss, a big kickoff return allowed, a punt blocked, and returned for a touchdown. Oh yeah, and Drayton only deployed 10 players for San Francisco’s final field goal.

“We have not gotten involved with any part of that process, with any of our coaches. We’ve got to look at everything, and if we feel like we can improve in certain areas, then we’ll make tough decisions. But we’re not even remotely close to getting into that at this point in time,” said LaFleur during his wrap-up interview.

Again, changes are on the horizon for Packers special teams. How big are they going to be?

The future

Now it’s time to think about the future and reshape the staff. LaFleur will also need an offensive coordinator, as Nathaniel Hackett departed to become the Denver Broncos’ head coach, but special teams can’t be an afterthought anymore. That’s why LaFleur must target established professionals from top units.

One good example is Rizzi himself. The New Orleans Saints currently employ him, but the Packers can monitor if Sean Payton‘s successor will keep him. Green Bay could take a similar approach with Ryan Ficken, the Minnesota Vikings’ special teams coordinator under Mike Zimmer. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings had the seventh-best ST unit in 2021.

A slam-dunk but less likely hire would be Chris Horton, the Baltimore Ravens coordinator who led the league in ST DVOA in 2021. He works under John Harbaugh, a rare head coach with a special teams background. Although he’s established himself in Baltimore and the Ravens could opt to block the move, maybe a promotion to special teams coordinator and associate head coach as the primary voice in the unit would entice Horton to move.

If the Packers can’t get any of these big names, they could search for the new guy among successful teams. The Kansas City Chiefs were third in ST DVOA. They had an experienced special teams assistant in Andy Hill, who spent the last two seasons in pro football after 24 seasons with the University of Missouri, the last two of them as an ST coordinator. He works under Dave Toub in KC, one of the most respected minds in the NFL who’s frequently included in head-coaching talks.

Another under-the-radar name is Michael Ghobrial, the New York Jets’ assistant special teams coach. The Jets had the second-best DVOA in special teams in 2021, and LaFleur’s friend Robert Saleh hired Ghobrial. Previously, the young coach had experience as special teams coordinator for Hawai’i and Washington State.

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