GREEN BAY – It wasn’t recited as a “big letters” promise like those from the recent past about the Packers running game (2013) or defense (2014), but it sure sounded like one.
Mike McCarthy on Thursday vowed to improve his special-teams units in 2015, and he’s going to make himself an integral part of the process.
“Special teams need to improve,” McCarthy said. “It’s an area definitely of concern.”
In moves that weren’t a surprise, McCarthy announced Ron Zook would take over as special teams coordinator for the departed Shawn Slocum, and he promoted Jason Simmons to Zook’s former role as assistant special teams coach.
It was somewhat unexpected, though, to hear McCarthy announce his own day-to-day role in the rebuilding of his team’s third phase, which struggled with blocked kicks and kickoff returns, among other areas.
“I’m going to be the third guy in that room now,” McCarthy said. “That culture is going to change in there, I can promise you that.”
Using special teams to help get young players contributing early in their NFL careers is a fact of life for any draft-and-develop program like the Packers, and that won’t change.
How a player becomes a core member of the special-teams units, though, likely will.
“We need to get more out of our veterans,” McCarthy said. “To me, that’s the hole in our special teams. The consistency and standard of play in our veterans is not where it needs to be. That will be a focus of mine.”
Zook joined McCarthy’s staff last year and said that knowing McCarthy and the players better in his second season will pay dividends.
Like McCarthy, he stressed the impact seasoned players can have on return and coverage teams.
“Those young guys are going to pay attention to what the veterans are doing,” Zook said. “The top special teams in the league, usually their veteran guys are leading the younger guys, and we have a large number of young guys. We’ve got to get them coached up.
“The guys that are coming back have to be better than they were.”
The Packers’ biggest strength on special teams last season was on punt returns, with Micah Hyde returning two for scores and averaging 15.8 yards per runback.
But seven blocked kicks (three field goals, two extra points, two punts) and a 31st-ranked kickoff-return unit, along with two costly special teams gaffes in the NFC title game, called for significant changes.
“I think special teams are always under the microscope, because it’s one play,” Zook said. “You don’t get second down and third down on special teams. It’s one play, and that’s what people remember.”
Fair or not, the Packers’ NFC Championship near-miss will be remembered for allowing a fake field goal for a TD and failing to recover an onside kick.
Now, McCarthy’s eye will be adjusting that microscope weekly if not daily, certainly more often than it has in the past.
“I think it’s great,” Simmons said. “Anytime you’ve got a head coach’s presence in a meeting, there’s a level of accountability with the players, and it heightens. We welcome it. It tells you the importance he puts on special teams, and I think that’ll trickle down to the players as well.”
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