GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy revamped the special teams coaching staff last offseason and promised improved units.
New coordinator Ron Zook and assistant Jason Simmons delivered.
The Packers weren't a special-teams juggernaut in 2015, but the return and coverage units weren't sore spots, either. The re-tooling started with a long sit-down in the offseason involving McCarthy, Zook and Simmons, during which they tore apart the playbook, slimming it down to a more manageable volume to teach and rep.
"The biggest thing is our players bought into it," Zook said in his final remarks to the media earlier this week. "The quicker they buy in and see what we want to accomplish, the better we'll be, and hopefully we'll be better next year."
Packers led the league in punt coverage, holding opponents to a 4.2-yard average. They also ranked 11th in kickoff-return average (24.5), up from last the prior year.
The rankings in punt return (30th) and kickoff coverage (29th) weren't good, but the damaging mistakes were kept to a minimum. Other than one long kickoff return by the Lions and a successful fake punt by the Vikings, both at home, there weren't many breakdowns that proved costly in defeats. The playoff loss at Arizona wasn't a high note to finish on, with a couple of early miscues contributing to a field-position hole, but that shouldn't detract too much from an otherwise solid year.
Veteran Chris Banjo led the coverage units in tackles with 21, but that was hardly a surprise from the special-teams captain. Right behind him, though, was receiver Jeff Janis with 15.
Janis developed into one of the league's top punt gunners, using his speed and strength to get in the return man's face often. Opponents began employing multiple players to keep him at bay. He also took over kickoff-return duties after Ty Montgomery's injury, and he posted returns of 70 and 64 yards in consecutive games, the team's two longest of the season.
Used sparingly on offense until the playoff game at Arizona, Janis embraced his special-teams role and provided a spark.
"He knew that was where he could make a big impact on this football team," Zook said.
The biggest regret is Janis never took a kickoff to the house, a feat the Packers have accomplished only once since 2000 (Randall Cobb, Week 1, 2011). Micah Hyde never got free on a punt return, either, breaking a four-year streak of at least one punt-return TD by Green Bay.
"If you go back and look, we probably left four, at least three touchdowns on the table," Zook said of the return units. "Where we made our biggest improvement in kickoff return is our guys' blocking."
There's plenty of reason for optimism in 2016, too. None of the team's top nine special-teams tacklers (Banjo, Janis, Jayrone Elliott, Demetri Goodson, Aaron Ripkowski, Joe Thomas, Quinten Rollins, Jake Ryan and Hyde) has reached restricted or unrestricted free agency yet.
The biggest issue in that area is kicker Mason Crosby, who is a pending free agent. Crosby put together a third straight strong year, making all 36 PATs from the new distance and missing just four field goals (24 of 28). The mis-hit from 52 yards out on the final play of the Lions game at home was regrettable, but he was also perfect again in the playoffs, setting an NFL record with 20 consecutive made field goals in the postseason, a streak that dates back to 2010.
"I told Mason, whatever you did in prep last year, you need to do the exact same thing," said Zook, expressing his obvious interest in bringing Crosby back. "When he does have an issue, he knows exactly what he has to do to fix it, and he does it.
"When you have to have it, those guys are hard to find."
The long snapper position is unsettled at the moment, but there aren't huge concerns with two viable options.
Veteran long-snapper Brett Goode, who was lost in December to a knee injury and replaced by Rick Lovato, is a pending free agent. Zook said everything with Goode's recovery is going fine. He also said Lovato proved he can snap in the NFL, and he was impressed with how Lovato stepped into a tough situation in his first game (at Arizona, Week 16) and executed successful punt snaps from the 1-yard line and on a fake.
Punter Tim Masthay battled through an up-and-down year to set the franchise record for net punt average at 40.2. He then followed up a strong playoff game at Washington with a tough night in Arizona, trying to kick away from Patrick Peterson.
Zook suggested that Masthay, a dedicated veteran player, sometimes gets caught thinking too much rather than letting his natural ability take over, and he'd like to see Masthay mentally let go more often.
"There's no question he can punt as well as anybody in this league," Zook said. "If anything, he doesn't want to let his teammates down. He doesn't want to let the fans down. He just has to go and do what he can do.
"He can do it in this league and he can do it at a high level."