After what was a cold, bitter loss at Lambeau last Saturday night, Aaron Rodgers quote about special teams spoke volumes about how the Packers viewed Special Teams.
“We would just like to play even … kinda have a wash in the special teams”
The leader of the Packers had resigned himself to the failure that was the 2021-22 Green Bay Packer Special Teams Unit. The Packers started the pre-season struggling to ensure 11 players were on the field for special team snaps and sadly had only ten players watch the 49er field goal go through the uprights as the final play of the Packer season.
When an NFL team of professional players and coaches spend an entire season repeating the same assignment errors and fundamental technique failures, and that same problem has extended over multiple years, you have a problem of culture. A culture problem cannot be changed over night with one coach being fired. The Packers have tried that, and failed. Miserably.
A culture change requires commitment from every member of the organization. The President to the GM, the scouting staff, to the head coach, to every player in the building. When LaFleur became the Head Coach, he pursued Darren Rizzi as a ST coordinator. The rumor was he was given a “low ball” money offer and he instead signed with the Saints. Looking at Saturday’s stunning loss one could argue that the failure to go all in on the best Special Teams coordinator cost the Packers a Super Bowl bid.
The Packers then hired Sean Mennenga in the position although he had no NFL coordinator experience in Special Teams. When it was obvious after two seasons that Mennenga’s best day at Lambeau was the day of his job interview, the Packers hired his assistant instead of searching for the most qualified candidate. To quote a business culture change expert:
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
While the Packers did invest two draft picks on special teams, both their selected punter and long snapper were replaced by this year’s Coordinator Maurice Drayton. Whether the failures of these two players can be blamed on the scouts, the coaches who failed to train them properly, the players themselves, or a combination, a culture has been created that Special Teams are not as important as the offense or defense.
A breakdown of the field goal block shows a basic technique failure by Packer blocker Tyler Lancaster. Lancaster lined up on the end of the right side before the 49er timeout. Then, Lancaster and Tyler Davis switched sides before the blocked kick. Reviewing tape of previous games, Lancaster has played the position all season but most of his snaps were from the right side, not the left. The 49ers did not do anything sophisticated. Lancaster just allowed the inside rusher through untouched and fully engaged the outside rusher. Lancaster made a fundamental error that should be the first rule of a field goal blocker, never let a defender cross your face.
On the blocked punt long snapper Steve Wirtel tried to block 6’4” 270 pound defensive end Jordon Willis. Wirtel weighs 228 pounds. Wirtel had no help and was literally pushed out of the way by a sprinting Willis who was barely even slowed by Wirtel’s failed attempt. Wirtel replaced Hunter Bradley mid-season even though he had no starting experience. Did that coaching decision cost the Packers a playoff win? The failures of the Special Teams unit cannot be levied just on Maurice Drayton. One could argue the Packer culture set him up for failure. The Packers placed the blame on Mennenga without addressing the entire Packer culture that contributes to failed special teams for close to a decade.
It is clear the Packers need a quality experienced Specialist to lead the Special Teams unit. Then each level of the organization must recognize their own contribution to the failure and make changes to their approach. Years ago Al Davis drafted a punter in the first round. NFL pundits mocked him. Ray Guy was a perennial All-Pro. It is no coincidence that he was a three time Super Bowl champion. Davis communicated to his entire team the importance of Special Teams by drafting Guy. Now, there are
many ways to communicate change. Davis’ message was extreme and should only be considered on a generational type player. The Packers need to find their own way to communicate change. The key will be not using yesterday’s logic. That thinking was a cultural failure.