Special Teams Q&A: Stock, Slocum Presided Over Improved Units

In the annual Dallas Morning News special teams rankings released last week, the Packers were seventh in the league in 2007, a dramatic jump from their last-place finish the previous two years. Packers.com sat down with coaches Mike Stock and Shawn Slocum to get their take on the marked improvement, and what lies ahead for 2008.


In his annual special teams rankings released last week, Dallas Morning News NFL columnist Rick Gosselin ranked the Packers seventh in the league in 2007, a dramatic jump of 25 spots from their last-place finish the previous two years.

Packers.com sat down with special teams coordinator Mike Stock and assistant special teams coach Shawn Slocum to get their take on the marked improvement, and what lies ahead for 2008. The following is a transcript of that conversation:

What would you say were the one or two biggest reasons for the jump in the special teams ranking this year?

STOCK: Another year's experience with the guys we had the year before, the improvement of the kicking situation, and the improvement of the punter. The coverage elements were better, all of those things.

SLOCUM: The personnel improved. The core guys that we had, as in Tracy White, Jason Hunter, were another year into our system, and they played better. Then adding guys like Tramon Williams and Will Blackmon, those guys were productive for us.

Were you frustrated to be ranked last after the 2006 season?

STOCK: Frustrated only insofar as it's not a true measure. It is a measuring stick, and the people who write about it will say 'That's the deal,' when the reality is we've got a chart that we use for 12 particular categories for competition that we do weekly. We put the hats in the squares where we excel, and where we don't, there's a blank. For that season, we were better than our opponents in most ballgames. But the big thing was we basically didn't make anything happen. We didn't score any touchdowns, and we didn't block any kicks. Those are the explosive things that happen in the games that we didn't make happen. But we held our own. You could say we were status quo, if you will, and we competed very well. We gave up one touchdown in the season, that was (Devin) Hester's return in the very first ballgame of the year, and we had one turnover. Beyond that, we just didn't make anything happen, and that's why we were last. But as far as I'm concerned, in the competition against opposing teams, we were pretty good.

SLOCUM: To add to that, in looking at each category statistically, by and large we were middle of the road in all those categories. But because of the way this grading system puts a premium on impact plays, such as scoring touchdowns and creating turnovers, we showed up as the last ranked team in the league. Well, we weren't last in anything. We were middle of the road, we were an 8-8 football team, we were 8-8 on special teams. This year, we created turnovers, we scored touchdowns, we were a 13-3 team, and we played special teams like that, in terms of being more impactful.

What was the difference that led to more impact plays?

STOCK: Well, you've got people like Will Blackmon, who we felt as a rookie even, would be an impactful returner. When he finally got healthy and was able to play for us a little bit this year, he showed that. Tramon Williams was a new guy. He hadn't had a whole lot of experience, but we felt he could be a good returner. In that (Carolina) ballgame, he made a good judgment, picked up the ball and returned a field goal-punt, if you will, for a lengthy touchdown. Big play in the game. So those are two guys we didn't have available to us the year before.

In the first ballgame against Philadelphia, we knocked the ball loose and then we were able to land on it for a touchdown in the end zone. And then the ball came out later on and we recovered it to sew the game up. Those things happen in ballgames. Now, we didn't make those things happen the year before. For whatever the reason, those things happened for us this year. We caused that. But I go back to the same explanation, another year in the system, more comfortable with what they're doing. We had drills to try to positively reinforce the emphasis of these things that we took advantage of in games.

SLOCUM: Case in point, a guy like Charlie Peprah, two years into the system and playing with more confidence, he goes and creates two turnovers on kickoff coverage. Jarrett Bush in the first ballgame, he knows exactly what he's doing. He showed up the week before we played the first game last year, and he was hesitant through the first portion of the season. Last year as a rookie on a new team, he hadn't been through the spring or training camp. This year, he goes down and makes an impactful hit on the first punt, we get momentum, get a touchdown, the guys start playing with confidence and it perpetuates itself.

After that Philly game, did either of you sense this could be a "special" year on special teams?

STOCK: I didn't, but I felt this way - with the amount of time and the emphasis we put on from IPWs to OTAs and the preseason camp, I felt very confident about our team. I didn't know anything about how special teams was going to play, but I felt our football team was going to be a good football team. Going through preseason games as well, I was even more enthusiastic about the possibilities that we would have a special football team, and I think the first game of the season against the Eagles confirmed that. You just hope from that point it continues to carry on. Like Shawn said, I think it perpetuated itself. The more confidence they got with what they did, especially in that first football game, to know how it came about - that we won the game not having scored an offensive touchdown - I think gave further credibility to the fact that you can win with two-thirds of the team playing together, like defense and special teams. If you have all three clicking, you've got a real great chance of winning. If you've got two out of the three, you have a real solid chance of winning.

Other than the Philly game, which game would you say the special teams had the biggest impact this year?

SLOCUM: There was a lot of production in the first Giants game ...

STOCK: Peprah caused the fumble on that kickoff coverage situation, and we opened the second half with a kickoff return that gave us great field position and gave us some momentum for the offense there. I'm not so sure about particular ballgames, I can't think back specifically, but I think every game that we played well, I think we had a hand in the momentum of the game and how things turned.

SLOCUM: The St. Louis game was a solid game, in terms of the coverage teams being really good and the return teams solid. There was a big differential in the hidden yardage in that ballgame statistically.

STOCK: And I think when we played Oakland here, it was big when Will Blackmon scored (twice) on those punt returns, his return and their fumble. Those were big plays in that game.

What did you take from what happened in Chicago? Do you learn anything from that?

STOCK: You take out of it the fact that you have to have an edge every time you perform and compete. You can't go into any ballgame and be lackadaisical, you can't have your mind wandering. There's got to be total commitment to what you're going to get done that day. You must be committed for 60 minutes, and on that day I don't think we were.

SLOCUM: Along those same lines, if you're not careful, you can get lulled to sleep with special teams. Every play there's a large exchange of field position and an exchange of possession of the football. If you a have a 45-yard punt and the opponent has a 5-yard return, the crowd doesn't go crazy, but it's really a well-done situation by the punt team. In the event it doesn't go like you plan, it can be impactful in a negative way. That game confirms that if you don't execute the things that you should, you can really hurt yourself as a team.

STOCK: The big thing is every play is important. Every single play is important.

SLOCUM: And volatile.

You've mentioned players like Hunter, White, Peprah and Bush, who were the veterans on special teams, in their second year. When you look at the guys new to the units in '07 - Korey Hall, Desmond Bishop, Tramon Williams, and others - any one of those guys show the most promise to become an impact special teams player for a long time?

STOCK: Right now, I'd hate to put anybody in that category. Korey Hall was drafted basically for special teams. He was a linebacker, and our idea was to make him a fullback, because we thought that would be the best fit for our football team, and for him to make the team other than just playing special teams. But then he became a starter, so we didn't have him totally on the special teams. To say that about him would be unfair to him. He did a pretty good job for us, and he played better as the season wore on. He got better toward the end, because he grasped what we were doing. But up until that point in time, he was trying to learn how to play fullback, how to do the right things there. His focus was with the offense.

But in terms of looking at those guys who were new last year and young, it's no different than Bush and Peprah and Hunter were the year before. They were just learning. They had no idea what they were doing at first, just trying to get into the system, find out what they had to do and how to do it. I think this year we'll have a stronger core if all those guys come back, stay healthy, and make our football team.

SLOCUM: Those three guys you mentioned, it's hard to single one guy out at this point because of the things Mike just said - they're all still on a growth pattern, and they should all continue to be more and more productive in the kicking game.

{sportsad300}In reference to Mason Crosby, had either of you in the past worked with a rookie kicker in a starting role, and how did you feel he handled everything?

STOCK: I never had a rookie starter in the NFL, so it was a first. But we were sold on him in the evaluation process. When all these guys were at the Combine, we interviewed and talked and looked at video and took the statistics of these guys' careers in college. He was the guy, clearly in our mind he was the No. 1 guy. When we picked him, he was the third guy in the draft who was chosen, but in our mind, he was the No. 1 guy. We didn't feel the same about the other guy from UCLA (Justin Medlock) or the other guy from Arizona (Nick Folk), although we thought the guy from Arizona, having a very strong leg, would be competitive in the league. We didn't know he was going to improve his accuracy as well as he did when he went to Dallas, but guys work hard and he's been a diligent worker, and he's done that. He was a better percentage field goal kicker than I would have imagined his rookie year.

Our guy is still on the climb. I think he's got more to offer. He had an exceptional rookie year, but that goes to the offense too. Our offense gave him an unusual amount of opportunities to kick field goals, and he came through. That's important. I think he can still improve his percentages big-time from this point on. I think he's got a bright future, he's got a good head on his shoulders, and I think he's focused, and those are important elements a kicker should have. He's a tough-minded guy.

SLOCUM: The only thing I'll add to that is I think one of the good qualities he's got is he's mature, in terms of his mindset. He's a practical guy, and he works to get better.

Who will be the standout special teams performer on this team next year?

STOCK: I've tried to steer our way clear of trying to put the finger on a guy. I go back to the core. There's always going to be six or eight guys that you'd like to think are the guys who are your mainstays, that are going to play on these coverage and return units all the time. Those are the guys you're counting on. To have one guy step forward as compared to the others, probably the gratification or the glory comes with who makes the most tackles. As far as that's concerned, this year Hunter was the guy. But White was out for a number of weeks, so he wasn't able to compete and be there. He was the tackle leader to start with, and then Jason Hunter kind of took over, because Jason stayed healthy all year. Hopefully he'll be able to do the same and both of those guys will be up and make the football team and be available for the duration of the season. So you'll have a pretty good competition with those two guys, and maybe two or three other guys as far as tackles are concerned as well.

Overall, how can the special teams units improve in 2008?

STOCK: One thing is we don't want to give up any scores, period. We were close to that a year ago, and it was a disappointing game against Chicago down there. That's probably what kept us out of the top four or top three in the standings, if you will. They scored a touchdown and blocked two punts. It probably kept the punter from having a better net, too. Up to that point in time, I think we were close to 40, or 39-point-something. That game really hurt us in terms of those statistical standings and so on.

SLOCUM: I'll say this. These young players that are playing a lot of snaps on special teams will continue to grow in their position and skill development. The thing we need to do as a group, as a unit, is we can be more productive based on the conditions that we're facing. The weather conditions for example in Chicago, we need to go win that battle, on that stage, and that comes with maturity and growth as a unit.

STOCK: Not to say there's an excuse for all of this, but there are reasons for these things. Youth is an important factor in terms of not doing certain things at certain times in games of that nature. I think our team learned a lot about themselves this past year. We had success, we had quite a bit of success, but we need to get over the hump and be able to control our destiny in these games by adjusting better, and I think we'll do that.

SLOCUM: I'll make this point, too. In terms of young players involved in special teams, what happens when they come out of college is a lot of these guys were star guys on their team. They were the best running back, the best linebacker, the best safety, and might not have played much special teams. It's such a unique part of the game that these guys get into this league and all of a sudden they're thrust into a role of covering punts and learning the tricks of the trade and covering kickoffs and blocking on returns and such. They're learning how to do it for the first time in many cases. You've got guys, like the guy in Cleveland (Josh Cribbs). That guy was a quarterback in college and in his third year in the league he figured out how to return balls and how to set them up. Now he's one of the best returners in the league, and he goes to the Pro Bowl. Sometimes there's a growth period in there because the guy had no previous experience in the kicking game.

STOCK: The improvement factor will come with experience and continued hard work, on our part and on their part as well.

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