After more special teams gaffes, Ron Zook, Packers face uncertain future
GREEN BAY — Those who follow the team closely like to call them “Zookisms,” phrases Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook likes to use when discussing his group.
There’s, “You don’t come out of the womb covering kicks.” And, “On special teams, you don’t get second down, you don’t get third down.” And, perhaps the best Zookism of them all, “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem — and then it’s a big problem.”
And for most of this season, special teams has most certainly been a big problem for the Packers.
“I tell them all the time, ‘Guys, we’re judged strictly on our worst play,’” Zook said. “It’s 11 guys, and everybody’s got to do their job. You know, (we’ve had) injuries, all those things, but that’s not an excuse. Everybody has those issues.
“I think what happens, too, is when things aren’t going well as a football team, then obviously the negative things show up. And (people say), ‘Gosh, you haven’t done this, you haven’t done that.’ … We’ve got to do a better job, but I love our attitude, I love the way we’ve worked.”
Nevertheless, the results have been poor — and last Sunday’s 44-38 victory over the New York Jets might’ve been rock bottom. From Andre Roberts’ 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter; to rookie wide receiver J’Mon Moore’s costly third-quarter fumble on a kickoff return that led to a Jets touchdown and a 35-20 deficit; to the Jets converting a fourth-and-1 fake punt; to Roberts’ 51-yard kickoff return late in the fourth quarter to set up a field goal to force overtime.
“That’s about as bad a game as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Zook admitted Thursday. “Sometimes, they happen.
“(The Jets) executed better than we did. And that’s part of the experience that you have to have. When you have inexperienced guys, they got to (learn). You say, ‘Well, they’re not inexperienced. We’ve been playing to this part of the season.’ But still, we’re playing a lot of young guys that haven’t covered a lot of kicks.”
In fairness to Zook, who joined the Packers in 2014 as the assistant special teams coach under Shawn Slocum and replaced Slocum after special-teams errors fueled the Packers’ meltdown in the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, the team’s injury problems have had a trickle-down effect on special teams. Practice-squad call-ups and other rookies fill the coverage and return units, and kick returner Trevor Davis’ hamstring injury has led to a cavalcade of candidates handling punts and kickoffs.
Entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field, the Packers have used six punt returners and seven kickoff returners. The youth and inexperience has also contributed to the team’s 24 special-teams penalties, which ties them for second-most in the league behind Pittsburgh (25).
Asked recently if it was frustrating that the special teams had struggled so much, offensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach Joe Philbin admitted that his focus had been on the offense before Mike McCarthy’s Dec. 2 firing.
“I haven’t paid as close attention, to be quite honest, the first 12 weeks of the season,” Philbin said. “We talked about it, we were in the team meeting room and we put it all out there, as transparent as we could be. Again, the intentions were good, but the communication has to improve. And we’re going to work through that.”
With McCarthy gone and a decision on a head coach looming, Zook knows Sunday could be his final game in charge of the Packers’ special teams.
“I’ve been in this business a long time,” Zook said. “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. But I want to keep coaching, I enjoy it. 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 officially listed wide receiver Davante Adams (knee) as questionable, but when asked as he left the locker room Friday if he would play Sunday, Adams replied, “That’s the plan.” Adams needs two receptions and 133 receiving yards to break the Packers’ single-season franchise records in both categories. “We’ll obviously see how he does (Saturday) on the practice field and make a decision and see what his status will be,” Philbin said. … The Packers also listed four other starters — left tackle David Bakhtiari (hip), cornerback Jaire Alexander (groin), left guard Lane Taylor (knee) and safety Kentrell Brice (knee/not injury related) — as questionable. … Wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and backup right tackle Jason Spriggs were both listed as doubtful as they remain in the concussion protocol. … Asked about the injuries, Philbin replied, “With a medical situation, football coaches with sociology degrees aren’t really qualified to weigh in on the impact of playing a game can have on a particular player. We’re looking for the 46 best players to help us win the game this Sunday, just like we have the previous three. Whatever combination it is, then that’s who we’re going with.”