The 2008 Packers season has been categorized in many ways. "Special" was not one of them.
It was the start of a new Favre-less era, the year the defense became an absolute horror show, Aaron Rodgers showing he can put up top-10 quarterback numbers, the purging of the defensive coaching staff, etc.
While the defensive struggles have been talked about ad nauseam, I don't believe the Packers' special teams' struggles have been emphasized enough. In the interest of fairness, let's take a look at what happened and what's being done about it.
First, a few fun facts about 2008 to paint a picture:
The Packers were 32nd in the NFL in Kickoff return yardage.
The Packers were 20th in the NFL in Kickoff coverage.
The Packers were 26th in the NFL in field goal percentage
The Packers were 27th in the NFL in average punting yardage
However you picture "awful", that's what you should be seeing in your mind's eye right now.
So how does this get fixed? Well, if you're Mike McCarthy, you start by encouraging Mike Stock, your 69-year old special teams coordinator to "retire" (just days after he told Green Bay beat reporters how he planned to be back for another year).
"Should I be looking over my shoulder? Do you know something I don't know?" Stock kiddingly asked following the team's Christmas Day practice. "It all depends on one thing and one thing only: How long does he (McCarthy) want me to stay? That's what it depends on."
Yes, after his post-season interview with Mccarthy, Stock suddenly changed his mind and decided to retire after three years with the Packers and 44 years in coaching overall. Call it a win-win.
Unlike his search for a new defensive coordinator, McCarthy did not look far from the team to fill the special teams position. On Jan. 15, four days before announcing Dom Capers' hiring, McCarthy promoted Shawn Slocum from his special teams assistant position to Special Teams Coordinator.
Slocum had spent the last three seasons with the Packers and before that, coached 15 college seasons for four different schools. He was a special teams coordinator at both USC and Texas A&M, and was also an assistant head coach at Ole Miss.
So the Packers seem to have an experienced coach whose time has come for his first pro coordinator position.
With the coaching positions settled, the Packers now turned their attention to their roster.
Tramon Williams, a solid special teams contributor was tendered a one year offer. Free Agent Anthony Smith, who played mostly on special teams last year, was signed to the roster.
Soon after that, Jarrett Bush was re-signed and not many people would question that his positive contributions to the team have all come on special teams.
Next up was the re-signing of Michael Montgomery as some DL insurance and more special teams help. Despite missing a lot of time with injuries, Montgomery has 13 special team tackles for the Packers, including two in the 2007 playoffs.
Soon after, the Packers signed free agent Duke Preston from the Buffalo Bills. His bio on their web site describes him as "as a key player on special teams and a valuable reserve on the offensive line." A bit surprising, but good news.
Restricted free agent TE Tory Humphrey, who has nine special teams tackles in 24 games for the Packers, was re-signed to the team.
A week before the NFL draft, Ted Thompson signed his three remaining restricted free agents, Atati Bigby, John Kuhn, and Ruvell Martin. All three have seen important special teams action for the Packers.
Then along came the draft, and the special teams theme continued.
BJ Raji: OKay, so he's the exception to the pattern I'm working on here...
Clay Matthews III - three-time special teams player of the year at USC. Need I say more?
TJ Lang - Converted from defensive line, TJ played special teams in at least his first three years at Eastern Michigan and won several "Championship special teams player of the game" awards.
Quinn Johnson - A converted linebacker, he was described this way in a CBS sports profile: "Quinn Johnson just likes to hit people whether lined up on offense, defense or special teams units." I love guys who love to hit.
Jamon Meredith - Says Meredith,"I've never played special teams but if they teach me how to play it I'll go out there, man. I've always thought about being a wedge-buster or a punt protector. If they ask me to be on special teams, I'll be happy to." While this probably won't happen, at last he's willing.
Jarius Wynn - Who? Impossible to find much info on this guy. Has he ever played special teams? Who knows?
Brandon Underwood - Special teams player of the year at Cincinnati. His played the all-important "gunner" position. Check.
Brad Jones - A four-year special teams player at Colorado. Says Jones, "I love special teams." Check again.
After the draft, the Packers signed 11 undrafted free agents. For any of these guys to make the team, they will have to be impact special teams players. WR Jamarko Simmons and RB Tyrell Sutton have both been quoted as being ready to take on that role.
And finally, what about the kickers? Mason Crosby did have an off-year, but the Packers seem unconcerned and committed to him. I think there needs to be some competition in camp. Much like they've done with the punters.
There are three punters currently on the roster and it is a wide-open competition. May the best (and most consistent) punter win.
So I think by now, you get my point. The Packers have approached this off-season with a specific mindset; they are thinking special teams with every move they make.
It's a good strategy and I think Packer fans can rightfully expect a big improvement in 2009. Just one more reason to be optimistic about 2009 being a "Special" year.
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