It’s a natural process that many football fans follow when an issue with their team surfaces — blame the players for failing to execute and if the problem continues, blame the coach. The Packers’ dismal special teams performance on Sunday night led cheeseheads to progress to the latter after a series of blunders made life difficult in the first half, and dramatic at the end of the game. The debate on what — or who — is to blame is alive more than ever: preparation or execution?
Last week, it was said that the third phase of the Packers’ game is what continues to plague a team that otherwise seems destined for a trip to SoFi Stadium in February. Not a slew of injuries or any outside noise about the future of the team and its players. Special-teams.
For those who didn’t keep count, the final tally was six mistakes on the night: a muffed kick-return by Malik Taylor, a muffed punt by Amari Rodgers, an out-of-bounds kick by Mason Crosby, a 97-yard punt-return touchdown, a shanked punt by Corey Bojorquez, and a muffed onside-kick by Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
And that was just what made it to the box score.
The Bears averaged 25.6 yards per kick return and 43.7 yards per punt return, leaving its offense with an average starting field position of its own 30-yard line.
Those are the kind of numbers that cost teams their season in the playoffs.
“Absolutely not,” was Matt LaFleur’s response when asked if a change at special-teams coordinator was on the table following the game.
It was a good question and one LaFleur had to assume was coming. The Packers are on track to own a bottom-10 special-teams unit for the third time in the past four seasons, per Football Outsiders.
While the blame will naturally fall on the current Coordinator, Maurice Drayton, it’s fair to wonder if the finger is being pointed in the right direction.
Maurice’s job is to establish the best game-plan to help his team win the game. His job is to also prepare his players to execute the strategy he’s laid out while placing them in the best position to succeed.
But for all the planning that goes into each week, game-day comes down to execution. A muffed kick can’t be blamed on a coach because he can’t play. The same can be said about a kick out-of-bounds or a shanked punt.
So, is Drayton failing to instill his lessons in his players or are those same players lacking focus when it matters most? As a fan, it’s a question you can’t answer because you’re not in the building.
What we do know is everything went wrong for the Packers’ special-teams unit last night. And that the problem is so concerning, many fear it could cost the team a number-one seed in the NFC, or even worse, its season.
A silver-lining, the punching bag that was the kicking operation earlier in the season has settled down in the last month, converting all of its extra points and six out of its last nine field goals. And despite having his worst showing of the season last night, Bojorquez has been nothing short of spectacular this season and still owns a 40.6-yard average on punts — second-best in team history.
It’s fair to assume last night’s unravelling will be as bad as it gets for Drayton and his crew this season. On the other hand, the water is hot and he will need to galvanize his team going into the most important stretch of the year.
It’s also fair to speculate what changes could be on the table from a personnel standpoint. Do the Packers need to look outside the organization for a capable returner while Randall Cobb is out?——————
Joshua Frey-Sam is a journalism student and aspiring sportscaster hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. A Packers fan since 2005, Josh has worked to master the financial and scouting aspect of the NFL over the past few years. Josh remains a firm believer that Dez did not, in fact, catch the ball. You can follow him on twitter at @jfreysam.