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Rich Bisaccia helped reignite the fire inside Packers' special teams

Culture change has unit again trending in the right direction

Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia
Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia

GREEN BAY – Days before the Packers kicked off the 2022 season, new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia walked to the podium inside the Lambeau Field media auditorium and delivered a straightforward manifesto for his unit.

"I think we're going to be good; I think we're going to hit some bumps in the road," said Bisaccia on Sept. 8, 2022. "We're going to have to overcome some successes we have, and we're going to have to overcome some not-so-much successful plays that we have. It's just part of the game."

Bisaccia was spot on with his preseason assessment. While there was some early turbulence, the Packers' special teams looked noticeably more confident and stable under Bisaccia and his longtime assistants, Byron Storer and Micheal Spurlock. The improvement came from across the board.

  • Green Bay went from the NFL's 30th-ranked kickoff-return unit to boasting the league's top returner, Keisean Nixon, a special-teams ace who played three seasons for Bisaccia with the Las Vegas Raiders before signing with the Packers last March.
  • Veteran kicker Mason Crosby rebounded from a challenging 2021 season to convert 25 of 29 field goals (86.2%). In addition to seizing the franchise record for consecutive regular-season games played (258), Crosby notched the longest January field goal (56 yards) in the history of Lambeau Field during the Packers' 41-17 win over Minnesota on New Year's Day.
  • Aiding Crosby's turnaround was the consistency of the field-goal operation with addition of punter Pat O'Donnell and long snapper Jack Coco, whom Bisaccia and Storer closely studied as an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech.
  • The Packers also signed a slew of special-teams stalwarts, including O'Donnell, former Raiders safety Dallin Leavitt, Rudy Ford, Eric Wilson and Corey Ballentine. That veteran base helped elevate a promising core that included leading coverage tackler Isaiah McDuffie, and flyers Tariq Carpenter and Innis Gaines. When the Packers signed O'Donnell in March, it was the first time the organization had signed an unrestricted free agent at punter in more than 20 years (Tom Hutton, 2000).

In the end, the Packers jumped 10 spots to No. 22 in Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings. While a few early-season fumbles and four blocked kicks/punts prevented Green Bay from climbing higher, the unit ended 2022 in a much better place than prior to Bisaccia's arrival last February.

"I think absolutely it's going the right way. I love the effort. I love the energy," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur of special teams during his season-ending news conference earlier this month. "(Bisaccia) is extremely sound and detailed in what we are trying to get done. You saw a lot of young players improve throughout the course of the season. I think as a team in terms of that phase of the game, we are definitely trending in the right direction."

Among the litany of factors contributing to the Packers' turnaround on special teams, the unit's turning point came when Nixon, signed as a street free agent in March, became Green Bay's primary kickoff returner in Week 6 against the New York Jets.

Over the first five games, Green Bay had averaged just 19.6 yards on eight returns with 17 touchbacks. After the move to Nixon, the Packers averaged 26.9 yards on 39 kickoff returns over the final 12 regular-season games with 14 touchbacks.

The synergy formed between Nixon and his blocking unit was evident in Week 17 when the fourth-year veteran busted the third longest kickoff return in franchise history (105 yards) in the rout of Minnesota. It was the first kickoff the Packers returned for a touchdown in more than a decade.

"Anytime you have a player like he's become to this point, certainly with the speed and power that he has, it puts a little bit of the onus on the blockers to play better, as well," said Bisaccia of Nixon last month. "I think they certainly work hand in hand."

Nixon was part of the philosophical change the Packers made this season, which saw Green Bay acquire more veterans who majored in special teams. Leavitt was signed before training camp, Ford was added after final cuts and Wilson was brought in midway through the season.

Ford and Nixon were standout flyers on the punt coverage unit early on before graduating to roles on defense, while Wilson ended up playing the sixth-most snaps on special teams despite not joining Green Bay until early October. Wilson's seven coverage tackles tied for the second most on special teams, trailing only McDuffie's eight.

The Packers incorporated more established starters on special teams, as well. Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and cornerback Rasul Douglas all played kickoff coverage, while rookie first-round pick Quay Walker was an interior blocker on punts.

Bisaccia coached with authority and honesty from the start of April's offseason program all the way to the regular-season finale against Detroit on Jan. 8.

"I really like what we did as a teams unit this year," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said. "A lot of respect for Rich and how he goes about things. I think the thing that I like the most was the play style of those guys and not only the effort and the intensity but then the pride they took in it. I thought our cover teams were as good as they've been in a long time."

No Packers player or coach knows more about Green Bay's special teams than Crosby, the franchise's all-time leading scorer who's played for six different coordinators during his 16 seasons.

The 38-year-old kicker enjoyed the changes Bisaccia and his assistants made to the practice week, especially when it came to the field-goal operation. Even on days when Crosby wasn't kicking, the Packers constantly worked on ball drills. It helped build comfort and rapport among Crosby, O'Donnell and the rookie Coco.

As a person, Crosby found Bisaccia to be a "consistent human being" who demands accountability from his players. Veterans saw that philosophy take hold inside Green Bay's special-teams room, as everyone involved bought into righting the ship. By year's end, the culture shift was noticeable and transformative, and has the Packers excited about what's to come.

"Working with Rich just lit a fire back into me to push and keep working," Crosby said. "He pushed me every day to compete and do all those things, and I feel like that energy alone just makes me want to keep going."

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