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Dougherty: Packers special teams units are a disaster, but there's no sense in firing the coach now


GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers have had special teams problems most of this season.

On Sunday night, it’s fair to say they turned into a full-blown crisis.

Mason Crosby was back to hitting his kicks in the Packers’ 45-30 win over the Chicago Bears. But coordinator Maurice Drayton’s special teams had eight very bad plays, including any of several that could have been catastrophic against a good team in a big game.

It’s one thing if the Packers had put in this kind of performance early in October. But to have the issues continue into mid-December, and to have their worst special teams game in years, maybe decades, is a major problem for a team that has visions of a Super Bowl in its head.

They were just lucky it happened against the Bears, and not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Arizona Cardinals in a playoff game.

“Chicago has had an up-and-down season, obviously they wouldn’t be considered a great team at this point,” Aaron Rodgers said afterward. “But when you’re playing great teams and the kind of football we’re gonna be playing here over the next month, we need to be a lot more sound in that phase of the game.”

That is an understatement.

How bad were their special teams? As bad in any single game as I can remember in 29 years of covering this team.

But before we run through the litany of errors, let’s get an important formality out of the way. When asked after the game if replacing Drayton as special teams coordinator was on the table, coach Matt LaFleur answered unhesitatingly:

“Absolutely not. We’ve got to continue to work, we’ve got to look at the tape, we’ve got to get things corrected. I’ll be the first to tell you, are there some things we have to clean up as coaches? No doubt about it. But we have to execute better as well.”

No doubt there’s a segment of fans who will be dismayed with his answer and insist Drayton should have been fired immediately after the game. But really, how often do in-season changes make a difference? Did Carolina’s offense get any better after coordinator Joe Brady was fired last week? The Panthers scored 21 points in a loss Sunday, so no.

And just who is LaFleur supposed to replace Drayton with? The glib answer is “anyone.” But as Abe Lincoln famously said when explaining to an angry politician why he hadn’t replaced a particular general during the Civil War: “Anyone might do for you, but not for me. I must have somebody.”

LaFleur’s alternatives on staff are not alternatives. Rayna Stewart, who is Drayton’s primary assistant, never has coordinated special teams in college or the NFL — he was a special teams quality control coach for one season in college and two seasons with the Packers before his promotion this year. And you’re going to hand him the special teams three-quarters of the way through the season with a possible Super Bowl at stake?

The Packers’ other special teams assistant, Connor Lewis, is even less experienced. His first coaching job at any level was last season as offensive quality control coach with the Packers. He doubles as a game-management specialist.

Bring in somebody from the outside? Get serious. If you have a shot at the Super Bowl, as this team does, pulling in somebody off the street in December with no working knowledge of the players or scheme is hardly a solution.

No, unless LaFleur has seen a big red flag in daily interactions with Drayton, or if Drayton has disobeyed orders, then Drayton is still his best chance at turning this around, as bleak as things look after Sunday night. Plenty of fans might find it emotionally satisfying to see Drayton get sacked, but what’s LaFleur’s objective here? To make himself or others feel better in the short term? Or to actually make things better by January?

So it’s up to Drayton to keep things together through this disaster. If his players like and respect him, then there’s at least a chance he can turn things around so at least special teams aren’t a liability for the Packers. Because for much of this season this team has violated the first rule of special teams, which is the same as the old physician’s oath: First do no harm.

What harm did they do Sunday night? Here’s the rundown:

  • The Packers allowed dynamic Jakeem Grant to return one punt for a 97-yard touchdown and another for 34 yards.
  • They allowed kickoff returns of 42 and 40 yards, and a third that was the equivalent of another 40-yarder because Crosby knocked it out of bounds, giving the Bears the ball at their 40.
  • In the first quarter, kickoff returner Malik Taylor inexplicably tried to a field a ball that was clearly headed out of bounds at the 5, and muffed it out of bounds.
  • In the fourth quarter, Amari Rodgers muffed a punt off his face mask that the Bears recovered only to be bailed out by a Chicago penalty that had nothing to do with the catch.
  • And Marquez Valdes-Scantling mishandled an onside kick late in the game that the Bears recovered.

So what can the Packers do at this late point in the season? Well, their return game is pretty much dead. They lost their most dynamic kickoff returner, Kylin Hill, to a season-ending ACL tear earlier in the year and have no one dynamic to replace him. Amari Rodgers has been a bust as a punt returner, and there are no good alternatives. So basically, their return game needs to just not give the ball away.

LaFleur said he’s spending enough time in practice on special teams. As offensive play caller, he spends much of his week putting together the game plan, but he might need to drop in on special teams meetings occasionally just to send a message to the players. 

“On the bright side, I think our PAT-field goal operation has been much improved, that is on the bright side,” LaFleur said. “I think our coverage units have been solid most of the year, tonight they were not. You have to give Grant a lot of credit, the guy is a beast. … But certainly it’s not up to our standard.

"It’s never an excuse, (but) we lost some key special teams guys tonight. That’s just the reality. We’ve got to find guys to step into those roles, and we’ve got to execute better, bottom line. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to execute better.”

There was plenty of coach-speak in there. But LaFleur knows as well as anyone that a night like this in January could very well end the Packers’ season.

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