Packers’ staff changes begin with special teams coordinator Ron Zook’s departure
GREEN BAY — Ron Zook’s special teams units might not have been good enough in 2018, but the now ex-Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator is no dummy. After four decades in coaching, he’s knows full well how the life of a coach works.
“They used to always say there’s two kinds of coaches, those that have been fired or those that are going to get fired,” Zook said late in the Packers’ disappointing 6-9-1 season. “And, for the most part, that’s probably true. It’s just the way it is.”
On Thursday, as new Packers head coach Matt LaFleur began building his first coaching staff in earnest, Zook got the word that he surely wasn’t surprised by: That LaFleur was not retaining him from ex-coach Mike McCarthy’s staff.
ESPN.com was first to report that Zook, who coached the Packers’ special teams for four seasons after taking over for Shawn Slocum, who was fired by McCarthy after the 2014 NFC Championship Game, in which two colossal special teams gaffes — allowing a touchdown on a fake field goal and failing to recover a late onside kick — played a major role in the loss. Zook served as Slocum’s assistant that season.
Zook, 64, is under contract for the 2019 season, and he seemed to know what was coming after McCarthy, who brought him to Green Bay, was fired on Dec. 2.
“I’ve been in this business a long time. Fortunately, I’m good,” Zook said when asked if he was concerned about his future with the staff in limbo following McCarthy’s dismissal and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s promotion to interim head coach. “Obviously, I want to keep coaching if that allows me. But if it doesn’t, I’ll do something. I feel very comfortable with where I’m at in life and what I’m doing.
“This is a great place obviously and we’ll see what happens. But I don’t have near the anxiety that some people might have.”
The Packers struggled on special teams all season long, from an ineffective return game to a bevy of penalties to inconsistent coverage units. Green Bay finished with the second-most special-teams penalties in the league, forced just one fumble (while committing 10 themselves), allowed a host of long returns and got next to nothing out of their own return game with Trevor Davis missing virtually the entire year with a hamstring injury dating back to the offseason.
Personnel was also a factor, as rookie punter JK Scott struggled down the stretch — he finished 26th in net punting — while the Packers used six different punt returners and seven different kickoff returners. Veteran kicker Mason Crosby, working with Scott as his holder and rookie Hunter Bradley as the long-snapper, went 30 for 37 on field-goal attempts (81.1 percent) and 34 for 36 on extra points.
Asked about his philosophy on special teams, LaFleur replied: “I want to be sound. I want to attack matchups on special teams. And we always talk about ‘penalty-free aggression.’ We want to make sure that we are playing aggressive, but we’ve got to be smart. We don’t want to put ourselves in negative situations.”
One possibility for LaFleur would be former Central Michigan head coach and ex-Packers special teams coordinator John Bonamego, who was a player at Central Michigan when LaFleur’s father, Denny, was a Chippewas assistant coach.
Bonamego was the Packers’ special teams coordinator under Mike Sherman for three seasons, from 2003 through 2005. In veteran NFL columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in two of those three seasons. They’ve ranked in the top 10 only once since.
Bonamego was Central Michigan’s head coach the past four years before being dismissed after the season. His NFL coaching career began in 1999 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he spent 12 seasons running the special teams units for the Jaguars, Packers, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that LaFleur’s four-year contract, which also includes a fifth-year team option, averages roughly $5 million per year. … With McCarthy set to sit out 2019 after not getting the New York Jets head-coaching job, the Packers are on the hook for his salary for next season, which is more than $8 million. … ESPN.com reported that wide receivers coach David Raih also will not return to LaFleur’s staff and has been given permission to seek other jobs. The Arizona Cardinals, coached by Kliff Kingsbury, are interested in Raih, as the two coached together at Texas A&M in 2013.