Packers focus resources to improve on special teams

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur saw first-hand the kind of impact special teams can have during just his second game as Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator last season.

Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy have seen for years just how much it can work against them with the Green Bay Packers.

So it’s no wonder, LaFleur, the Packers first-year head coach, keeps bringing it up.

And it’s no surprise that Gutekunst, the Packers general manager, and Murphy, the team president, want things to change.

It was in Week 2 last season, when the Titans, playing without starting quarterback Marcus Mariota, came up with a fake-punt touchdown pass and a game-winning field goal in the last minute to beat the Texans.

And it was most of last season when Gutekunst and Murphy watched the Packers stumble to a dead-last ranking in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings under former coordinator Ron Zook.

To say special teams has been a problem for the Packers is to say Lambeau Field gets a tad chilly in December.

“It has,” Murphy said when asked if he views special teams as recurring problem.

So Murphy approved an added position on LaFleur’s coaching staff. He not only has a special teams coordinator in Shawn Mennenga, who came from the college ranks (Vanderbilt) to take his first NFL coordinator job, and returning assistant Maurice Drayton, but there’s a third coach dedicated to special teams, quality control assistant Rayna Stewart (who assisted Mennenga at Vandy last year).

“It was an added position, and we’ve struggled on special teams,” Murphy said. “So hopefully one more person could be helpful there.”

So could players specifically pegged for special teams.

Not since the days of Sean Richardson (in 2015) and Jarrett Bush (in 2014) have the Packers kept veteran players on second contracts whose primary role is on special teams. Yes, Richardson and Bush played some in the secondary, but their main roles were as veteran cover men and blockers.

In 2016, the Packers cut backup safety Chris Banjo with an injury settlement. A year earlier, he led the Packers in special teams tackles and was elected as a playoff captain following the 2015 regular season.

Banjo joined the Saints in 2016 and was named as a Pro Bowl alternate as a special teams player for the 2017 season. That year, he made just $1.05 million. He turned 29 last month but still played in every game for the NFC's top-seeded Saints, who paid him just $1.55 million.

Last season, four of the Packers’ top-five special teams tacklers were rookies.

“I think it’s kind of the philosophy,” Murphy said. “Some teams keep players just for special teams. We’ve been one of the younger teams. Part of that is getting players that are going to be able to perform on special teams.”

That’s where Gutekunst comes in.

Considering Thompson made his NFL career as a veteran special teams player for 10 years, it was surprising that he didn’t bring in more players for that purpose.

Gutekunst, a Thompson disciple, may have to change that unless he thinks coaching alone will solve the problem.

“Struggles on special teams are never one thing,” Gutekunst said last week at the combine. “It’s always multiple things. I think there’s been times in the past when we’ve had pretty good special teams. Obviously, the last few years we haven’t. I think a lot of times last year, we had a ton of moving parts and that’s tough to have consistency on offense, defense and special teams when you have the moving parts we had.

“But I’m excited about Shawn and what his staff is going to do. But at the end of the day it’s about players. It would be nice to have some guys that kind of become the captain of your special teams. I thought last year James Crawford did a heck of job as a young first-year player. I think there’s some other guys that have a chance to fill those roles. I think that’s an important part moving forward for Shawn and Matt to have some guys who really embrace it, that’s kind of their calling.”

In Mennenga, the Packers have a tie to one of the elite special teams coaches, Kansas City’s Dave Toub. He tutored Mennenga’s former boss, Chris Tabor. Mennenga worked under Tabor with the Browns, although Cleveland’s special teams weren’t exactly standout units. They never ranked higher than 14th in Gosselin’s rankings during their time together (2011-17) and four times ranks 25th or worse. Under Zook, the Packers ranked 17th, 29th, 16th and 32nd.

“Certainly there’s a standard we’re going to want to perform at,” LaFleur said. “I saw it last year in Tennessee with Craig Aukerman. I thought he did an unbelievable job, and really it’s the reason why we won a couple of games. I can go back in my head and think about that Houston game, although our defense played outstanding as well. But there were certainly some games that last year we won because of the special teams.”