We all saw last year how frustrating and deflating a struggling kicking game can be and how having an electric player returning kicks can ignite a team during a game or how one can surprise an opponent by having the placeholder toss a touchdown to a tight end on a fake field goal.
There wasn’t a more up and down unit last year for the Packers than their special teams. Let’s all hope for more consistency from this group in 2013.
How difficult was it watching Crosby’s meltdown last season? He put together one of the worst seasons by any Green Bay kicker. He finished the year with 21 made field goals out of 33 attempts. That’s an abysmal 63.6 percent. Good enough to finish last in the league in 2012 from kickers with at least 10 attempts on the year. Crosby also went 2 of 9 from beyond 50 yards, giving him one of his worst long distance percentages (22 percent) in his career.
This dip in performance (I’m being modest here) came as a surprise to most Packers fans. Crosby has been a solid kicker for Green Bay up until the 2012 season and has been known for his strong leg.
So what happened?
Some said it was the new stadium design. That the new addition in the South end zone changed the wind patterns in the stadium, making it difficult to judge wind direction and such, but we all know that’s nonsense. Crosby is a professional and knows how to deal with unpredictable wind direction. Crosby’s struggles were predominately mental.
His funk began in week five at Indianapolis, where he went 0 for 2 in crunch time and failed to help his team move past the Colts. Crosby then missed at least one field in nine of the next 10 games, going 1 for 3 and 0 for 2 in important divisional games against the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.
Crosby’s struggles led to many calling for the Packers to cut Crosby halfway through the season and bring in a street free agent. However, Coach McCarthy decided to ride out the bumps in the road and stick with Crosby for the rest of the season. McCarthy continued to show confidence in Crosby, even though the 28-year-old kicker may not have always been confident in himself during the slump.
Despite his struggles, Crosby was able to turn things around by the end of the season. With his coaches and teammates behind him, Crosby finished the last two weeks of the season with a perfect 4 for 4, including a 51-yarder against Minnesota in the last week of the season.
The Packers brought in free agent kicker, Giorgio Tavecchio, this offseason to compete with Crosby in camp, and hopefully, light a fire under him. I doubt Tavecchio is a serious consideration to make the Packers’ final roster this fall. He was cut by the Forty-Niners last preseason—only attempting one field goal in the entire preseason—and spent the rest of the year out of the league.
I’m sure Green Bay is hoping the competition at kicker this offseason will bring the best out of Crosby. As Packers fans, let’s hope so. Because we can’t weather another season where the Packers’ odds at making the last second game-winning field goal are only a little better than a 50-50 proposition.
Punter – Tim Masthay, 6-1, 200 pounds
Masthay has been solid for Green Bay for several years. Many overlook the valuable contributions a good punter makes to a team, but Masthay’s role is well appreciated by his coaches and teammates. Masthay only had a 43.5-yard punting average last season, which is slightly below the league average; however, this stat doesn’t reflect Masthay’s strong season.
With an offense like Green Bay’s that moves the ball well, the Packers are going to have the advantage of field position over their opponent a majority of times. Meaning when the Packers punt they have less field to deal with than teams whose offenses don’t move the ball up the field as well. Consequently, the Packers punter is going to be managing a smaller field, causing his punting average to be lower.
I know this sounds like I am qualifying Masthay’s short punting average, but consider this: Masthay booted 30 punts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line last season. That was good enough to rank him seventh among NFL punters in this statistical category, and all the punters ahead of Masthay on the list, except for San Fransisco’s Andy Lee, had far more attempts to accomplish this feat.
More impressively, Masthay ranked third in the league last year in punt return yards allowed, only surrendering 179 yards on 24 returns and zero touchdowns. This ranking also credits the Packers punt coverage teams, which has improved over the past few seasons. However, this impressive statistic shows how well Masthay places the ball and hangs it in the air for the coverage team to get downfield and prevent a major return.
Still young, Masthay should hold down the punter position for the foreseeable future, and he’ll continue giving the Packers fans no reason to complain.
Long Snapper – Brett Goode, 6-1, 255 pounds
Goode enters his fifth season as the Packers’ long snapper and has done admirably since taking over the position in 2008. Goode will continue doing his thing and be one of the few Packers players who actually flies under the radar.
Cobb has been a playmaker at both kicking and punt returning. He has three touchdowns from returns in his first two seasons, but with Greg Jennings’ departure, Cobb’s role in the receiving game will expand and the Packers may not want to risk injuring one of their most valuable offensive weapons on special teams.
McCarthy has stated he would like to take Cobb off return duties going into the 2013 season, but if a returner doesn’t emerge on the roster this offseason, the Packers may be forced to keep Cobb as their primary returner.
I expect Ross and Franklin to get good looks at returning kicks this training camp. Besides a fumble in the playoff loss and a botched lateral catch against Chicago, Ross played well taking over returning duties late in the season last year. He averaged 28.7 yards on three kick returns and 25.8 yards on four punt returns. Ross showed everyone what he could do with a 58-yard punt return against Tennessee in week 16. Ross’s best bet to make the roster is by winning the primary returning job, and at this point, he looks like the Packers best bet at this position.
However, the Packers may want to experiment with a few other players returning kicks. It has been reported Franklin got a few reps returning kicks in OTAs, and may get a closer look at this position in training camp. Franklin definitely possesses the quickness and agility to be an effective kick returner, but do the Packers want to risk injuring one of their rookie running backs on kick returns?
The Packers may also try speedy undrafted wide receivers Sederrik Cunningham and Myles White, in camp. Young defensive backs, Chaz Powell, James Nixon, and Loyce Means also have returning experience in college, so the Packers will definitely have options heading into training camp and may experiment with a few players at the position.
Toward the bottom of the depth chart, a player’s best chance to make the roster is on special teams. Bush, Taylor, Francois, and Lattimore tallied the most snaps on special teams last year for the Packers (at least 270 snaps each), and have made their names as gunners or on kickoff coverage.
These players are the unsung heroes of the team that do all the dirty work necessary to win on Sunday. Most of them are young players who are fighting for a roster spot, but some are veteran reserves, like Jarrett Bush, who seem to really love laying a hit on opposing returners.
If you want to know who is going to make the final roster this season watch which players excel on special teams. Expect young reserve players like Sean Richardson, Micah Hyde, Terrell Manning, and Sam Barrington to make names for themselves on special teams.
Special teams is the best chance for “long shots” on the roster to make their case for the final roster. In camp, watch closely how the kicking battle develops, which players assert themselves on special teams, and which player emerges as the Packers’ primary kick returner.