What’s the deal with special teams? They don’t look that special!
[cue laugh track]
Recent history repeated itself in the Green Bay Packers’ final preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday. The scene: A Jordan Love-led Packers squad held its own against the Chiefs until special teams came crashing down in every conceivable manner. Between allowing 118 punt return yards, six missed tackles, and only gaining 56 total kickoff return yards, special teams looked the same as ever—bad!
Why are Green Bay’s special teams still so awful? Is it the cost of having so much elite quarterback talent? Did Desmond Howard‘s Super Bowl TD use up all future special teams juice? Did Ted Thompson anger a witch years ago? Whatever the reason, watching the Packers play so terribly in the third phase of the game for so long is frustrating.
I hate myself enough to delve into the team’s special teams woes, and one thing is clear: For now, Packers fans need to be patient. The new special teams look a lot like the old groups, but, hey, it’s preseason. Rome wasn’t built in a day (I cannot verify this as I wasn’t born yet), and Rich Bisaccia needs time.
Shawn Slocum’s squad brought pure despair to Packers fans during the 2014 NFC Championship. “Fire Zook!” was the rallying cry of Packers fans years ago. But since that fated firing, the coaching changes haven’t fixed anything. Shawn Mennenga and Maurice Drayton offered no solutions, and the Packers realized maybe they needed to rethink their whole approach to the problem.
The offense wasn’t great in last season’s divisional-round loss. But Green Bay makes the NFC Championship with a moderately competent special teams unit. Following the game, Matt LaFleur announced his willingness to find the root of the problem and rebuild.
Enter Bisaccia. For the first time, Green Bay got the best guy available for the job. Bisaccia’s name is respected throughout the league. He even earned Coach of the Year votes as the interim leader of the Las Vegas Raiders.
This wasn’t just another coordinator change. In hiring Bisaccia, LaFleur handed the keys to a guy who knows what he’s doing and has a track record of success.
Culture change matters too. Recall that not only did LaFleur bring in a new offense, but he revitalized a stagnant culture and earned buy-in from Aaron Rodgers and the team.
Green Bay’s special teams need the same treatment. The same mistakes continue to crop up. Players on that unit were an afterthought. The Packers never prioritized special teams, but Bisaccia’s “we-fense” aims to change that.
But the process takes time. Bisaccia needs to keep instilling his fundamentals and philosophies into his core players. We’ve seen players react well to his often-volatile coaching methods. He’ll yell and really let you have it when you make mistakes, but he’s the first one there celebrating your success and hyping you up when the work pays off. People love to play for Bisaccia. Many former Raiders joined the team to stay with their beloved coordinator.
Building the culture is one aspect of pulling special teams out of the dirt, but it takes the right players, too. Previously, Green Bay had their fringe players dominate most of the special teams snaps. You were a special teamer if you couldn’t carve a role at your primary position. There was no urgency or fit.
Bisaccia has had more freedom than previous coordinators to get the guys he needs. He’s brought in former Raiders like Keisean Nixon, Dallin Leavittand Rico Gafford and chose his new punter in Pat O’Donnell (who has been good!). He clearly had a say in some Day 3 picks, bringing in a potential special teams ace in Tariq Carpenter. He and LaFleur have teased the idea of veterans playing on special teams more, though we haven’t seen that in the preseason. Bisaccia is still building the core of his group.
That’s one reason this unit has looked so bad in the preseason — they’re still figuring out who belongs there. Fellow masochist Justis Mosqueda tracked the special teams’ starters through each preseason game, and a common trend is many of these players won’t be there in the regular season. LaFleur and Bisaccia needed to try players in different spots and see what sticks.
“We certainly played a lot of guys, and that was by design,” LaFleur said. “We wanted to get a good evaluation on each and every individual that could potentially contribute to our football team. So, that’s been a big-time emphasis.”
LaFleur wasn’t happy with how the special teams played against Kansas City but noted none of the three phases are where they want to be yet. LaFleur also said he wanted to see the successful concepts from practice translate to the regular season.
Will Bisaccia finally be the one to fix special teams in Green Bay? I’m not sure. Being an idiot, I thought Maurice Drayton had some potential at this time last year. But Bisaccia’s change in philosophy and approach is apparent, as is LaFleur’s commitment to fixing this phase from the ground up. Bisaccia is the team’s best chance of turning things around. So far, what we’ve seen hasn’t seemed great, but it’s early. Bisaccia needs time to lay the new foundation. It may look ugly at times, and my tune may change if they are this awful at midseason. But, for now, we need to recognize this process will take time and be patient.