GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Matt LaFleur might change special teams coordinators for the second straight year. And most probably think the Green Bay Packers coach has to after the debacle that wasn’t just Saturday night’s 13-10 divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers but also a season filled with special teams catastrophes.
But will it really do any good?
Maybe Maurice Drayton was the problem. And Shawn Mennenga the problem before that. And Ron Zook before that. And Shawn Slocum. And Mike Stock. And John Bonamego. And on and on.
The previous seven special teams coordinators in Green Bay have seen their end come in one of two ways: fired or forced into retirement. The most recent with a different fate was Johnny Holland, but even he didn’t retain his position. He ran the special teams in 1998, but when Mike Holmgren left to coach the Seattle Seahawks in 1999, Packers coach Ray Rhodes moved Holland to coach linebackers -- the position he played in the NFL.
If it’s not scheme and coaching, then why are the Packers so repeatedly substandard on special teams?
“Ted never prioritized special teams and neither does Gutey,” said a longtime NFL agent who has had several players -- including many who have played on special teams -- with the Packers.
That’s in reference to the past two Packers general managers, the late Ted Thompson and current GM Brian Gutekunst. It was especially surprising with Thompson, who made a decade-long NFL career out of being a special-teamer. But perhaps it’s not as surprising that Gutekunst has a similar approach -- although in 2018 he did draft a punter and a long-snapper, neither of whom are still on the roster -- given that he worked under Thompson.
Thompson gave up on a pair of players who would be among the top special teams players in the league. In 2016, he cut safety Chris Banjo, who has been a core special teams player for the New Orleans Saints (2016-18) and now the Arizona Cardinals (2019-present). Before that, safety Anthony Levine, who spent two years on the Packers' practice squad (2010-11) before he was cut at the end of the 2012 training camp, signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He was a core player on special teams units that ranked in the top six in the NFL annually from 2012 to 2018. Levine is still on their roster.
While neither likely would have had much of a role on defense, and two players over the course of a decade don’t make special teams better or worse, they’re just two examples of how the Packers' approach to special teams has impacted their units over the years.
Coincidentally, the last two teams that eliminated the Packers from the postseason had long-snappers who once were in Green Bay: Taybor Pepper with the 49ers and Zach Triner with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers moved on from both. Meanwhile, they tried two different long-snappers this season, which might have contributed in part to kicker Mason Crosby’s struggles.
ESPN’s Football Power Index ranked the Packers 31st among the 32 teams in special teams efficiency during the regular season, so expecting the playoffs to be different was unrealistic.
But this seemed excessive even by their standards.
The 49ers blocked a field goal and a punt, making the Packers the first team in 33 years to have both happen to them in the same playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It last happened to the Houston Oilers on Jan. 1, 1989, against the Buffalo Bills.
The blocked field goal, a 39-yarder, came on the final play of the first half and would have given the Packers a 10-0 halftime lead.
The second block came with the Packers punting from their own 12-yard line in the fourth quarter. The 49ers returned it for a gimme touchdown to tie the game at 10-10 with 4 minutes, 41 seconds to play.
“You could argue that was the difference in the game,” LaFleur said. “But I think it was more than just that play.”
Oh, there was more on special teams.
In between the two blocked kicks, Deebo Samuel returned the opening kickoff of the second half 45 yards to set up the 49ers' first score, a 29-yard field goal that made it a 7-3 game.
And the final ignominy came when the field-goal-blocking unit that Drayton sent out as Robbie Gould lined up for the game-winning 45-yarder included only 10 Packers players. Based on alignments and personnel the Packers used against the 49ers previous two kicks -- the third-quarter field goal and the fourth-quarter extra point -- it appears that linebacker Tipa Galeai was the one who didn't take the field.
“That can’t happen,” LaFleur said. “It’s unacceptable. Again, that’s on me.”
It’s not like LaFleur didn’t see it coming. Special teams was a problem when the season started and a problem when it ended.
Drayton seemingly spent all season trying to get it right.
Six weeks into the season, he said: “When I go back to Week 1 and I go to now, I see a progression of us getting better. The untrained eye may not see it. The stats column doesn’t see it, but I see it. As long as I see it and those young men see it, we will be where we need to be when it truly, truly counts in November, December, January.”
Little had changed by Dec. 12 against the Chicago Bears, when the Packers had no fewer than nine special teams plays that went against them, and Drayton said: “Right now we’re just trying to fix, fix, fix and we’ll judge it in the end.”
The end is now here, and LaFleur is the judge. Maybe he won’t make a change because no head coach wants the reputation of firing assistants left and right; that makes it harder to attract good coaches.
Or maybe he will decide to shake things up and bring in someone from the outside.
Drayton was promoted from within, having served as an assistant to both Mennenga and Zook (who worked under previous head coach Mike McCarthy). Zook got the job the same way, stepping in after Slocum was fired following the botched onside kick recovery in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
“These are things I’ve got to do a better job, obviously, in being more involved to make sure that those types of things don’t happen, that we’re putting those guys in the right position and coaching them the right way,” LaFleur said. “And ultimately, it all falls on me.”
A dominant defensive performance against the 49ers led by budding star outside linebacker Rashan Gary couldn’t make up for the special teams blunders and another mediocre playoff performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“We just would like to play even -- make some plays [and] kinda have a wash in the special teams,” Rodgers said. “That’d be good. But in crucial, critical situations, we had obviously some issues. But offensively, you score 10 points, you’re not going to win a lot of those games.”