At the end of last season, there was a lot of talk of how the Packers special teams let us down. There was then a lot of action on the part of the Packers staff in letting Shawn Slocum go, making sure the head coach was in on the special teams meetings, and drafting versatile players who are likely to contribute to that group. With OTA’s happening now and Training Camp on the way, it is time to take a closer look at the Packers’ special teams and identify the good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we are going to start with a look at two games that give us insight into whether the Packers special teams kick return unit was trending up or down when last year came to such an abrupt and ignominious end. I think you will be surprised.
What I compared was the Packers starting field position in the first week (against Seattle) to the Packers starting field position in the NFC Championship (also against Seattle) and tried to discern if the Packers were on an upward trend or a downward trend. Both of these games were against the Seahawks and both were played away from Lambeau Field. The benchmark for this comparison is the 20 yard line, the reason for this is that it takes touch-backs out of the scenario. So anything on the positive side of the 20 yard line is counted as a positive and anything less than the 20 yard line is considered a negative. The average field position is calculated accordingly.
When the Packers marched out onto the field against the Seahawks in week one of the 2014 season, a lot of us in Packernation…well, we expected better. Of course it was the first game of the season but with the way McCarthy had spoken about the progress of the team, Packernation expected a better showing. The Packers starting field position in week one, if the 20 yard line is the zero point, was a plus 2.1 yards. That means that the Packers started on average at the 22.1 yard line. But that includes the first quarter touchdown series that started on the Seattle 34 (net 46 yards past the 20). Without that return, the Packers starting field position would have been…drumroll please…roughly the 17 yard line…for the whole game. This…is a starting field position nightmare.
So the Packer starting field position was atrocious in the first meeting against the Seahawks. What we are trying to determine is if the arrow is pointing up for these guys. The perfect comparison came in the Packers’ last game of the season against the Seahawks…and in Seattle. Did the Packers starting field position improve?
Well, where in the first meeting the Packers started just two yards past the 20 on average, in the Championship game the Packers offense started…on average…over 16 yards past the 20 yard line. This included only two starts behind the 20 yard line and 3 at the 20. But a solid improvement meant that the Packers would have every opportunity to win the NFC Championship. We didn’t get the job done but the starting field position offered by the special teams was certainly not the problem. The real problem in that game was not the special teams (who, admittedly, blew it at the end) but the inability of the Packers to convert in the red zone.
So, if the Packers start where they left off. they will already be on an upward trend. Eliminating mistakes is the easy part. The Packers eliminated the player who made the mistake. But the low-lying fruit of the special teams may have been picked at the end of last season…at least in terms of starting field position. If that is the case, the Packers will be fine tuning and improving their special teams with some of the versatile, driven players that they picked up in the 2014 draft. One wildcard will be the absence of Jarrett Bush. But we will see.
Can the special teams be “special” in 2015? I think they can. But we will continue to look into the reasons they let us down in 2014 and the ways that they can bounce back in 2015 in this continuing series.