The philosophical shift can be summed up in something coach Mike McCarthy said long ago, during the 2011 season, when his Green Bay Packers were still undefeated when the calendar turned to December.
After years of memorable one-liners – “We’re nobody’s underdog,” “We’ve got our foot on the gas, hands on the wheel, we’re looking straight ahead,” and “We feel that this is our time, and Sunday will be our night” had been the unforgettable ones on the road to Super Bowl XLV a year earlier – he added another to the lexicon after a victory over the Oakland Raiders ran the team’s record to 13-0.
“We don’t play scared,” McCarthy said.
And while McCarthy’s team lost its bid for a perfect season the following week at Kansas City, it is that mentality that he feels he got away from in recent years on special teams.
“I’ve got to get away from that [play-it-safe] thinking. I think it’s dangerous to get into limitations and trying to be too cautious,” McCarthy said midway through camp about being afraid to use starters on special teams. “When you get cautious and worry, negative things happen. So we’re going to put our best players out there. We need to be better on special teams and a good returner makes any return unit better.”
He reiterated that stance this week, in advance of Thursday night’s regular-season opener against the defending Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks, saying that his postseason analysis of the special-teams units showed that he played too many young guys and not enough seasoned vets. And that extends beyond having two starters (wide receiver Randall Cobb and safety Micah Hyde) as his top punt returners.
“When you go back to the evaluation of postseason, we need to get back to giving special teams all the resources to be successful,” McCarthy said. “We’ve played younger players. We’ve had injuries. We’ve had things happen in the past. Our veterans are back on playing special teams. Randall Cobb is our punt returner. Micah Hyde is our punt returner. I look for [No. 3 running back] DuJuan Harris to make an impact on kickoff returns.
“So just the fact we’ve been able to get so many more people trained in playing your best players on each segment I think will definitely help us.”
It’s not just the return game, however. While old special-teams standbys remain in the mix – cornerback Jarrett Bush, inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, tight end Ryan Taylor – among the starters who appeared on either No. 1 return units or No. 1 coverage units during preseason were Mike Daniels, Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields, Hyde and Datone Jones. Rookie first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is not starting on defense, is also a key special-teamer.
Clinton-Dix is also a rarity, however – he may be the only rookie to see action on special teams against the Seahawks.
“We have a couple guys (who are rookies), and that’s an advantage, I like that,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “Regardless of whether a guy is starting or not starting, you have to make the decision of who’s going to play on your team that’s going to be the most productive – taking all things into consideration. If a guy’s playing 80 plays on defense, he’s probably not going to be as productive as a guy that’s playing 30.
“Now, he may be a ‘starter’ in your nickel or something like that, but yet he’s covering punts and kickoffs, now he’s getting his 50 plays. We consider all those things. There’s no concrete formula on how to do it, it’s just what fits our team the best and how strategically we want to go about it.”
What would fit the Packers’ special-teams units best would be continuity. After yet another injury-plagued season, their coverage and blocking groups were a mish-mash of personnel every week. As a result, while Hyde was productive on punt returns (12.3-yard average, fifth in the NFL), the Packers ranked 30th in kickoff return average (20.3) while opponents averaged 13.1 yards per punt return and 25.9 yards per kickoff return.
“I think that’s something that will easily be solved with consistency of personnel,” Taylor said. “Last year, we were all over the place personnel-wise. When we were really good in 2011, 2012, we had consistent guys across the board covering every kickoff. I knew what Robert Francois was going to do, I knew what ‘JB’ was going to do, I knew how they were going to play it. It really helps when you have the same guys there with you every time.
“Last year, that was really the issue. We had guys getting interchanged not only every game, but within games. It’s hard to get consistency with that. If we can get back to having that core of guys like in the past, I think that’ll bring some normalcy.”
In 2012, despite Crosby’s unexpected struggles, the Packers’ special teams units still fared well in the annual rankings. According to Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, who has been doing his composite special teams rankings for over three decades, the Packers ranked No. 12 in the 32-team league in 2012. But in 2013, with Crosby back on track, the Packers fell to 20th in the 32-team league.
Since Slocum replaced Mike Stock in 2009, the Packers have ranked 31st in 2009, 29th in 2010, tied for 13th in 2011, 12th in 2012 and now 20th. The Packers' best ranking under McCarthy came in 2007, when the group finished tied for seventh. Perhaps that’s why McCarthy dismissed assistant special teams coach Chad Morton and now has three coaches dedicated to special teams – Slocum, ex-Florida and Illinois head coach Ron Zook and young assistant Jason Simmons.
“The thing we had then was a bunch of guys that wanted it. And that’s what special teams is – wanting it more than the other guys,” Taylor said of 2011 and 2012. “There are a lot of skills involved, sure, but when it comes down to it, it’s a hustle play. There’s not a whole lot of scheming. It’s, can you win the 1-on-1 battle with the guy in front of you? Back then, we had a lot of late draft picks, small-school guys who felt like they had a lot to prove. And we proved it every week.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.