McGinn Wrap, Part 6: The Green Bay Packers' Team F grades
Bob McGinn continues his look back at his four decades covering the Packers. Here's what his notebook reveals on the worst of the worst.
It should come as no surprise to dedicated, longtime followers of the Green Bay Packers that special teams have been the team’s Achilles’ heel for decades.
Each year since 1991, I assigned letter grades to eight categories based on the Packers’ entire season. The categories were run offense, run defense, pass offense, pass defense, special teams, personnel moves, coaching and overall.
In my approach, an F was not to be dispensed without overwhelming evidence of failure. Of the 248 categories from the team’s last 31 seasons, only nine received an F.
Special teams led the way with three F’s. They were followed by pass defense and personnel moves, each two, and run offense and run defense, each one. Pass offense, coaching and overall never received an F.
The only A for the special teams came in the championship year of 1996 when Desmond Howard turned in one of the greatest return seasons in NFL history. There also were three B-plus seasons: 1993, 1998 and 2011.
The other grade breakdowns since 1991 were four B, three B-minus, one C-plus, five C, four D-plus, three D and four D-minus.
Obviously, the work of the primary special-teams coach is vital. So, too, is the role of the general manager and his personnel department.
Probably the most vital man in the equation, however, is the head coach. He sets the tone for special teams among his players and coaches.
The Packers had six head coaches (and 11 special-teams coordinators) from 1991-’21. Here were my yearly grades arranged by head coach:
Lindy Infante: 1991, D-plus.
Howard Tippett was coordinator in 1991.
Mike Holmgren: 1992, C; 1993, B-plus; 1994, D-plus; 1995, C; 1996, A; 1997, B; 1998, B-plus.
Nolan Cromwell was coordinator from 1992-‘97. Johnny Holland was coordinator in 1998.
Ray Rhodes: 1999, D-minus.
Steve Ortmayer was coordinator in 1999.
Mike Sherman: 2000, B-minus; 2001, C; 2002, C; 2003, B-minus; 2004, B-minus; 2005, D-minus.
Frank Novak was coordinator from 2000-’02. John Bonamego was coordinator from 2003-’05.
Mike McCarthy: 2006, D; 2007, B; 2008, D; 2009, D-minus; 2010, D; 2011, B-plus; 2012, B; 2013, D-plus; 2014, F; 2015, C; 2016, C; 2017, B; 2018, F.
Joe Philbin served as interim head coach for the final four games of 2018 after McCarthy was fired.
Mike Stock was coordinator from 2006-’08. Shawn Slocum was coordinator from 2009-’14. Ron Zook was coordinator from 2015-’18.
Matt LaFleur: 2019, D-plus; 2020, D-minus; 2021, F.
Shawn Mennenga was coordinator from 2019-’20. Maurice Drayton was coordinator in 2021.
It’s telling that in this 31-year period Rhodes was the only head coach with a background on defense. Infante, Holmgren, Sherman, McCarthy, Philbin and LaFleur all had offensive backgrounds. It’s often maintained that head coaches with expertise on defense field better special teams than head coaches from offense.
Since 1985, sportswriter Rick Gosselin has used a weighted statistical formula to rank overall performance on special teams.
Forrest Gregg, the Packers’ head coach from 1984-’87, was another coach from the offensive side of the ball. His special teams ranked 26th in 1985, ninth in ’86 and 21st in ’87. Infante, the head man from 1988-’91, led special teams ranked 21st in 1988, 23rd in ’89, fourth in ’90 and 19th in ’91.
In the 37 seasons of the Gosselin rankings the Packers never finished higher than fourth; that was in 1990 and ’93. Their other top-10 finishes were ninth in 1986, seventh in ’96, seventh in ’97, tied for ninth in ’98, eighth in ’03, ninth in ’04 and tied for seventh in ’07.
Remarkably, the Packers ranked last (32nd) in five of the last 17 years: 2005, ’06, ’14, ’18 and ’21.
Although Holmgren cut his coaching teeth under the 49ers great Bill Walsh, who regarded special teams basically as an inconvenience, Holmgren’s units were spectacular with Howard in 1996 and usually reliable in his other six seasons. Sherman’s clubs were adequate in the kicking game, too.
Then came McCarthy, and the kicking game has been a disaster in Green Bay ever since.
Using the year-by-year Gosselin rankings, the Packers have fielded the NFL’s worst special teams since 2006. The sum of their rankings in the past 16 seasons was 382, an average rank of 23.9. Next was Carolina at 371, with Denver (350), the Chargers (347) and Washington (307) rounding out the bottom five.
It’s no surprise that New England easily had the best special teams from 2006-’21. Patriots coach Bill Belichick spent seven seasons early in his NFL coaching career working in special teams before becoming a defensive coordinator for six years.
The Patriots led with a total of 125 for an average rank of 7.8. Their lowest finish in the past 16 seasons was 18th last year.
Next was Baltimore with 162; John Harbaugh, the Ravens’ coach since 2008, was special-teams coordinator in Philadelphia from 1998-’06. They have posted top-six finishes nine times in the last 10 years.
Completing the top five were Seattle (175), another franchise with a longtime coach (Pete Carroll) whose area of expertise was defense, Buffalo (196) and Chicago (214).
Befitting their overall performance, the Packers’ special teams have been a critical factor why a team with either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback for the last 30 seasons has reached the Super Bowl just three times.
From 1987-’21, I wrote the “Rating the Packers” feature after each game. Using advice from Tippett, who convinced me in 1989 to establish the separate category of kickers instead of just special teams, I awarded footballs for each game after tape review. One-half football was the minimum, five footballs were the maximum.
The Packers reached the playoffs 22 times in the 35 years of “Rating the Packers.” Having won a pair of championships, they were eliminated 20 times.
In those 20 elimination games, the highest football award for special teams was 4 twice (at Dallas in 1995, at Arizona in 2009). The Packers received 3 three times, leaving 15 games in which the special teams got 2.5 or worse.
The elimination-game catastrophes in the kicking game included blocked punts for touchdowns against San Francisco last year (Henry Black, Steven Wertel were at fault) and Atlanta in 2002 (Matt Bowen), the touchdown pass from field-goal formation (A.J. Hawk) and the bungled onside-kick recovery (Brandon Bostick) at Seattle in 2014, botched returns by Jeremy Ross and Randall Cobb at San Francisco in 2012 and Corey Harris’ pair of fumbles on kickoff returns at Dallas in 1993.
The only 5 football award in the Packers’ 43 playoff games since 1993 was the Super Bowl in 1996 when Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown of Adam Vinatieri’s high boot (4.3 seconds of hang time) late in the third quarter broke the Patriots’ backs. In that game, Howard also returned punts for 34 and 32 yards.
In February, LaFleur hired Rich Bisaccia to be his third special teams coach in four years. He coordinated special teams under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay (2002-’08) and for the Raiders (2018-’21), under Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay (2009-’10), under Norv Turner in San Diego (2011-’12) and under Jason Garrett in Dallas (2013-’17).
Based on the Gosselin rankings, Bisaccia’s units posted an average finish of 14th over his 20 seasons. His highest ranking was second in 2009; his worst was 31st in 2003. He has coached for six playoff teams, including the championship Bucs of 2002 in his first NFL campaign when his units finished seventh.
The Raiders ranked 19th, 25th, 16th and 11th under Bisaccia over the last four seasons. He also served as Las Vegas’ interim head coach for Games 5-17 last year after Gruden’s ouster.
Bisaccia and Green Bay are off to an unimpressive start on special teams. Through games of Sunday, Oct. 9, the Packers ranked 24th overall in a breakdown of 10 key categories of special-teams performance.
The following are the Packers’ nine grades of F from 1991-’21 and excerpts from my grading comments that first appeared in The Milwaukee Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, BobMcGinnFootball.com, The Athletic and GoLongTD.com.