Packers: Vetting process

Mike McCarthy apparently is truly committed to changing the way the Green Bay Packers do business on special teams.

He fired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, who’d been on his staff from his arrival in Green Bay in 2006.

He vowed to get more personally involved in that area of the team, going so far as to surrender offensive play-calling duties – a decision that at least in part is connected to improving special etams.

But perhaps the biggest change – one that McCarthy and new special teams coordinator Ron Zook hinted at earlier this month and McCarthy was adamant about during a break in the NFL Scouting Combine – is that more and more starters will be used on special teams going forward.

So if you think the Packers have been foolish to use wide receiver Randall Cobb on punt and kickoff returns, or you don’t want to see the health of starting linebackers, defensive backs or linemen risked on blocking or coverage units, McCarthy had bad news for you.

The logical assumption about the Packers’ struggles on special teams during McCarthy’s nine years as head coach has been that the cavalcade of young players playing key roles on special teams made it hard to develop any continuity. It was also seen as the cost of doing business on a draft-and-develop team.

On top of that, special teams were viewed as a proving ground for young players who were looking for opportunities on offense or defense.

“I think we need to adjust our special-teams philosophy,” McCarthy said at an informal session with beat writers at a hotel restaurant near Lucas Oil Stadium. “I know what it was [in Green Bay] the last 20 years, but we had starters player more on special teams this year than we had in the past, and that will continue to increase. Special teams needs to be an asset, not something that we use as a stepping stone to offense or defense. That’s part of the charge.

“Frankly, that probably wasn’t fair to Shawn in some ways. This year we made [some of] those changes, having more starters play. … We’ve got to get that energy and that vibe throughout all special teams, regardless if they’re rookies or veterans.”

One of the more interesting things to surface when McCarthy spoke with reporters on Feb 12 upon announcing his staff changes was the implication that the team’s veterans were less than gung-ho about playing on special teams. McCarthy, Zook and promoted special teams assistant Jason Simmons all intimated that a lack of veteran commitment, enthusiasm or effort was part of the reason why the Packers’ special-teams units finished the season ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL in Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual analysis.
Said McCarthy: “We need to get more out of our veterans. To me, that’s the hole in our special teams. The consistency and the standard of play in our veteran players is not where it needs to be. And that will be a direct focus of mine.”

Said Zook: “I think No. 1 the veterans buying in. I’m not saying they didn’t buy in. But the emphasis is those young guys, particularly early, they’re going to pay attention to what the veterans are doing. If you go back and you look at the top special teams in the league. Usually they’re veteran guys are leading those younger guys. … Our veteran guys, they have to be consistent.”

Said Simmons: “The biggest thing that I’ll say is continue having high energy. Not to say that it wasn’t there before, but … I think the biggest thing is guy understanding that you can be so close and it can be special teams [that is the difference between winning and losing]. It can be any phase, and I think that’s a good lesson for all of us to understand. We can’t take any phase for granted. Special teams is truly important and Coach Mike being in the room lets the players know that as well.”

McCarthy said that his team maintaining good health will be part of the equation, too. That way, he can rotate players on offense and defense, thereby saving them a few snaps they can in turn spend on special teams.

“[It’s important to] pay attention to the play time going into a game,” McCarthy said. “You don’t tell a player that because you don’t know how the game’s going to go, but you’re thinking, ‘[This player is] only going to play 40 plays this week,’ and that kind of stuff. Having a substitution pattern early in the game to set you up for that, to me you’re forecasting that, because it is a long year. That’s where the fit of special teams and defense, you really want a lot of your special teams players coming from defense, particularly on your coverage units.”

Perhaps it’s only coincidence, but since the season ended, the only two players the club has released have been the two players most responsible for the devastating special-teams gaffes in the NFC Championship Game. First, tight end Brandon Bostick, who failed to recover Seattle’s onside kick with 2 minutes left in regulation, was released; on Friday, it was veteran linebacker Brad Jones, whose overly-aggressive kick rush was the deciding factor on the Seahawks running their fake field goal play for a touchdown.

Message or not, the veterans are being put on notice – one way or another. For Zook, the fact that McCarthy intends to attend special-teams meetings reinforces that message to the vets.

“I think No. 1, particularly for the older guys, [it emphasizes] the importance of how important it is. They have to buy in,” Zook said. “I always had a little saying in football of, ‘Everybody needs to have a little fear for their job whether it be the players, the coaches or whoever.’ I think he adds that a little bit.

“Everybody wants to perform at their highest level offensively and defensively. Now you have to make sure that they perform at their highest level on special teams, as well.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.