Once again, the Green Bay Packers put together one of the worst special teams performances in the league last year. Are you surprised? Probably not.
The special teams unit under former coordinator Shawn Mennenga finished 29th in the league in the 2020-2021 season in Gosselin’s rankings, and 26th the year prior, earning Mennenga’s dismissal. He was replaced by bright young assistant Maurice Drayton, long-rumored to be head coach LaFleur’s favorite for the position last time around before the higher powers pushed for an outside hire.
While the one dependable rock on the unit, kicker Mason Crosby was nearly flawless as usual, punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley performed inconsistently. “They both know that they have to be more consistent in the things that we need them to do to be successful,” said Drayton, the new coordinator. “They have a prescription that we’ve written for them to work on… they understand that their backs are against the wall.”
Where do they need to improve?
Despite the ire of fans on social media, JK Scott was ranked 4th in the league among punters by Pro Football Focus. He’s improved every year of his career, averaged 45.5 yards per punt – not bad considering the cold and windy conditions of Lambeau Field, placed 15 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and only allowed three touchbacks.
What’s not fair is to criticize Scott’s punts being returned, that’s on the rest of the special teams unit. The gunners in particular were wholly ineffective. It is fair however to criticize his inconsistencies; he had several short kicks off the side of his foot in the middle of the season.
On more than one occasion, including a playoff win over the LA Rams, botched snaps by long snapper Hunter Bradley nearly cost Scott the opportunity to get the punt away in time. General manager Brian Gutekunst intends to apply heat to Bradley and improve the production the team is getting from the position, as evidenced by his sole addition in free agency of Joe Fortunato.
Meet Joe Fortunato
Despite questions about the future of the offensive line, cornerbacks, linebackers, and even wide receivers, instead of adding players at any of those positions when free agency opened, new special teams coordinator Drayton convinced Gutekunst to bring in competition for their long snapper.
Bradley’s competition in training camp will be a man who hasn’t played a football game since 2015; however, that’s a testament to how hard it is to win a starting job in the NFL. And unlike some of the flashier positions, long snappers simply don’t get many opportunities to impress onlookers. Flawless performances in practices and workouts may still just not be enough to beat out an established veteran. The likelihood of then getting an opportunity with another team that same year is slim. Five years can go by in a flash.
Joe’s NFL journey
Fortunato worked out for the Packers back in November 2020 and clearly left an impression with the team. After the season was over, he received a call from his agent and learned that the Packers wanted him. Joe was excited for the opportunity of competing when I spoke to him on the phone.
“It’s so hard to get your foot in the door as a long snapper the NFL, particularly in my situation, having been out of college for a little while. I was so happy I got tell my dad that the dream continues. And for it to be in Green Bay, I mean, where else would you rather be in the NFL than the Green Bay Packers? It’s incredible.”
That dream has been a long time coming, and Joe knows the road ahead still isn’t an easy one, but opportunities in the NFL are few and far between if you aren’t drafted. Signed by the Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2016, he didn’t make the final roster. Since then, he’s been brought in as the second long snapper for a few teams in training camp. Since teams don’t keep more than one long snapper, beating out a drafted veteran for a roster spot is always a difficult task. The Eagles, Falcons, and Giants all moved on from him. “Second long snapper in, first guy cut” was an understandable refrain, and one Joe heard too often. Then he signed with the Dallas Cowboys.
— Delaware Football (@DelawareFB) May 1, 2020
COVID-19 meant the cancellation of the off-season, and with it, Joe’s best shot at competing for a starting job. Well-liked, and with a great open opportunity to compete, there’s a good chance he may have been able to win the job. The team however had no choice but to stick with the guy they knew best, and Joe went back to coaching at a kicking camp, teaching young special teams players the ropes. Coach Jim Cooper who runs the camp is the same guy who convinced Joe to give long snapping a try. Originally a quarterback in high school, Joe said he was embarrassed at first to try snapping. He was teased by his friends. However, long snapping earned him a full scholarship from the University of Delaware, after playing there first as a walk-on freshman. Now he’s being given opportunities to compete in the NFL as a long snapper, something Quarterback Joe could have only dreamed about. “It’s funny how things worked out,” Joe muses.
Can Joe actually win the job?
Beating out a drafted long snapper is a tough order, but there’s certainly room for improvement on the team. Bradley needs to be better than he was last year to keep his job. Joe knows what the team is looking for, and it’s already his top priority: consistency. “Long snapping, it’s something you have to practice every day. Every other day at a minimum. I have to go out and snap every day, because unlike any other position, it’s all muscle memory. There’s no thinking involved, there’s no such thing as situational snapping. You snap, you rely on muscle memory, then you get your head up and start blocking your ass off.”
I asked Joe if he’s studied Bradley at all, and he is indeed familiar with his competition. “But it’s not like other positions where you’re one-on-one, seeing who’s tougher, or who can block the other guy further back. It’s you versus you. I can’t worry about anything else, I have to go out there and do my best. If I do my best, whatever happens in the end happens.”
The former walk-on for the Delaware Blue Hens became a four-year letterwinner by being unnoticeable. That’s exactly what you want from a long snapper. As Joe puts it, if you have a reason to even know who your long snapper is, he probably screwed up. Hopefully no one in 2021 has a reason to think about who their long snapper is.
What’s next for the Packers special teams?
Maurice “Mo” Drayton is big on teaching. The personable, passionate young coach emphasizes in answer to every question about the job that teaching is the forefront of coaching. His goal is to help his players reach their potential by lifting each other up. The special teams unit has a long way to lift each other up. “First, do no harm” will need to be the motto this season. After that, continuing to add talent to the roster will help. Linebackers Ty Summers and Oren Burks played themselves off of the defense and were well on their way to playing themselves off the team. They’ll need to become more consistent, and especially more gap-sound in their assignments.
As for Scott’s punting, adding competition for him seems unlikely. And as opposed to Hunter Bradley, any competition for Scott would likely only be there to motivate him to play better. The best thing the Packers can do for Scott and Mason Crosby is to surround them with better, more consistent talent. The Packers’ gunners on punts were particularly atrocious, but some of that was on Mennenga’s scheming. The Eagles in particular were able to out-scheme Mennenga and double his gunners, resulting in a punt return for a touchdown by rookie Jalen Reagor. Mo Drayton will need to improve substantially over Mennenga in the scheming department.
Poor special teams play and the Green Bay Packers go hand in hand, a product of being able to rely on Hall of Fame quarterbacking for over thirty years. Mo Drayton and Brian Gutekunst would like to finally change that this season. The ultimate goal of special teams is the same as the goal of the long snapper: be consistent, do no harm, and don’t give fans a reason to know your name.