The Green Bay Packers special teams, with the exception of kicker Mason Crosby, has been generally reliable this season. In Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears, however, the unit jeopardized the Packers’ quest for the division title.
For years, the Green Bay special teams were putrid – they had no returners, a series of terrible punters, and a group that struggled to cover even the most mediocre returners.
Recently, and particularly this season, the improvement has been noticeable and critical. Punter Tim Masthay has not had a bad game all year and sparkplug returner Randall Cobb has helped the Packers win the field position battle.
As most of the special teams are ascending in Green Bay, Crosby has been on a serious downward trend. Crosby missed both of his field goal attempts in Chicago, leading to a doozy of a record of eight straight games with a missed kick.
The Packers appear to have no intention of cutting Crosby. We’re 14 games into the season and it is probably more of a risk to bring in another kicker at this point than to continue to work with Crosby. It’s obviously a glaring problem to have a kicker on the roster that you can’t trust, and it led to the Packers attempting a couple of fourth down conversions that likely wouldn’t have happened it they felt more comfortable with Crosby.
The biggest problem on special teams, however, was the bizarre trick play attempt late in the game. Cobb caught a punt, turned and threw across the field to Jeremy Ross, who dropped the backward pass, allowing Chicago to recover the fumble. Coach Mike McCarthy explained after the game that he saw it as an opportunity for a big-gain play that could seal the deal, while admitting that it was “clearly not the highlight of my coaching career.”
The call itself wasn’t terrible. Cobb threw a beauty of a pass that Ross should have caught. The real problem was the decision to employ that play given the situation. It was the fourth quarter, the Packers were on the road, up 11 points, and playing for the division title. All of those good reasons to pocket the play. Furthermore, even if Ross had caught the ball, I didn’t see a lot of open field in front of him. The Bears offense had done next to nothing in the game and the Green Bay defense was performing well. I don’t think the Packers needed that spark that trick plays often provide.
It was case of the risk – turning the ball over to Chicago within ten yards of their endzone – far outweighing the potential reward – good field position or, at best, a touchdown return. Even if the Bears were showing the coverage that the Packers wanted, it wasn’t the time or the situation for the play.
I’ll definitely give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt here, though. He has been very judicious and creative in using gimmicky plays and they have often worked out. He’s a very conservative coach who has a small crazy streak in him, which is kind of a good combination. He waits until he has the look he wants from the opposing team before pulling out a trick play. We’ll just file this one away under the “huge disasters” category and move on.
As the competition heightens and the weather gets colder towards the final weeks of the season and into the playoffs, special teams becomes more important to a team. Though it wasn’t a great performance from special teams, I don’t think they pose a risk to the Packers’ playoff prospects and hopes. Yes, Crosby’s misses can’t be ignored, but there’s really nothing the team can do to address those at the moment. Added pressure on the guy isn’t going to help him get out of his head. I take this game as a blip on the radar of a generally strong season and think that special teams will continue to aid Green Bay’s success.