Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is Stock The Only Fall Guy??

Mike Stock retired this past week, the first fall guy for a disappointing 2008 season. Stock, the Packers' special teams coach since 2006, saw his squad deteriorate from an okay 2007 to a concerning 2008. Missed field goals, punting nightmares, and poor coverage and return teams led to the call for Stock's "retirement".

Now, the rumor has it that Stock was given the "you can retire, or we will fire you" choice, and he took the former. At 69 years of age, he probably figured he has better things to do with his life besides ride the tide of the Packers' ups-and-downs.

That stated, so far Stock is the only casualty of a coaching staff that saw an 13-3 team one field goal short of a Super Bowl fall to a stunning 6-10 in one of the NFL's weakest divisions. The longer defensive coordinator Bob Sanders goes with a nameplate on his door at 1265 gives rise to the thought that Stock may be the only major move that coach Mike McCarthy makes this offseason.

The question is: was Stock deserving of being the only firing, if that's how it turns out?

In my opinion, special teams comes down to three things: fire, discipline, and team depth.

Fire: When I look back at some of the best special teams coaches on winning teams, they almost are invariably these crazy-haired wacky guys who infuse their young players with the fire they need to do the full-tilt assignments that they need to do. Joe Avezzano is a guy who comes to mind, he the special teams coach of the Cowboy teams of the early 1990's.

You often saw him screaming, running up and down the sideline, celebrating every good play and going on a rampage after every bad play. He set the tone for the role special teams have to play.

I don't know if Stock has that kind of fire, at least this year. But then, I don't know if the entire team had that kind of fire all season, either. Yes, Jason Hunter and some other no-names did some pretty interesting sack celebrations late in the year, but the 2007 Packers had a "going through the motions" feel all season, and that wasn't limited to just our special teams.

However, special teams is where that fire is most needed, as you are often dealing with the bottom of your depth charts and with young players who need to show such fire to eventually advance. Stock needed to get those coverage and blocking teams playing with the desire they needed.

Discipline: Hand-in-hand with fire has to be discipline. Blocking teams need to form their wedges and hit their blocks. Coverage teams have to guard their lanes and contain the cutback lanes. Punters and kickers have to block out pressure and make the kicks that they are expected to make.

Stock struggled with discipline this season, also. Perhaps the worst drop was in kickoff return coverage. The Packers ranked ninth last year in the opponent's average drive start (26.6-yard line), but this year they dropped to 21st with a drive start average of 27.8. At the heart of that increase were seven returns of 40 or more yards, several that occurred late in the game and set up the opponent for a game-winning score.

But discipline, like fire, was a teamwide problem for the Packers this season, and this is much more indicative of larger issues. Special teams should be expected to play with fire, even if the starters aren't. But discipline isn't something that you pin first and foremost on the special teams.

Our offensive line was the most penalized in the NFL this year. McCarthy had to repeatedly discuss simplistic execution errors like "pad level" and "gap control". Missed tackles along our defensive front (and particularly our linebackers) were glaring. And our secondary seemed to allow a huge (and critical) pass play each week when they needed a stop most.

This teamwide lack of discipline is obviously going to spill down to the special teams. If your starters can't play with discipline, why would you expect your special teams to play with discipline? If the special teams was the only squad on the team to play undisciplined ball, there'd be a problem. But, if you are going to fire Stock, shouldn't James Campen be let go for the repeated holding penalties along the offensive line? Shouldn't Winston Moss be let go for the substandard play of his linebackers in gap control?

If no other coaches get canned this year, this a glaring double standard set for the rest of the coaches on the team. Discipline is very much a part of the climate and environment of the team. If there is any lesson to be learned from Brett Favre, it's that if you play undisciplined ball, you should be held accountable for it. McCarthy did very good job of that with Favre, while Eric Mangini did not.

But in the wake of Favre, the lack of team discipline was glaring. There was do doubting the talent or the effort in place, but the execution often came up lacking this year. And the question you have to ask is "why"?

To fire Stock for the lack of disciplined execution may be deserved. But then, the same standard should apply to a lot of other coaches, including the head coach.

Team depth: The Packers had their most heralded special teams in the mid-1990's, a gilded age after free agency allowed veterans to move freely to other teams and before the salary cap limited the ability of teams to retain them. Solid veterans manned the special teams for the Packers, such as Don Beebe, Bernardo Harris, Desmond Howard, Mark Chmura, and Chris Jacke, who brought veteran leadership and consistency with spectacular results.

Nowadays, it is very difficult to have anything resembling that kind of veteran special teams squads. Most starters take up such a large chunk of the cap that you can't afford higher-priced veterans to fill out the rest of your squad.

That stated, Stock was given an even more difficult hand to play with this season.

* The depth of the team was sorely overestimated in 2008. I opined several years ago that we would first see the impact of Ted Thompson's trade-down philosophy in the special teams, as it was the depth that would be built up by the now-43 draft picks in four drafts. The idea was to spur competition among players, let that competition dictate the starters, and then you'd have some good players to back them up and play special teams.

However, I think it is difficult to look at the 2008 season and suggest that drafting quantity over quality has delivered quality starters on both sides of the ball, nor was solid depth evident, either. This is a disappointment for those who have praised Thompson's strategies in the draft and free agency over the past few years.

* The return to a more "normal" year of injuries also impacted Stock's effectiveness.

The bottom of the roster were filled with names like Breno Guacamole, Danny Lansanah, and Desmond Bishop. Not dealing with strong players for special teams to begin with, the charmed 2007 season seemingly free of injuries ended, and 2008 saw a constant shuffling of mediocre players for Stock, also.

We've seen how successful shuffling mediocre players around is on the offensive line, so we can guess how difficult that was for younger, less talented players on special teams. It is true that a special teams coach should expect to have some revolving doors on his squad, but Stock admitted having a lack of consistency on the squad this year made it difficult to execute consistently....which brings us back to discipline.

* The punting situation has to factor in somewhat with Stock's dismissal. Neither Thompson, McCarthy, nor Stock have publicly admitted who exactly made the boneheaded decision to cut your veteran punter on the final cutdown day to pick up a guy sitting on the street because you "think" he might do better. But, since McCarthy has little problem casting blame on those under him this season, you would imagine (as Stock implied) that it came from the front office.

Now, Jon Ryan was no world-beater, and he had a rough end of 2007. But he had been solid enough over his previous two seasons, and had a very solid preseason. To cut him and entrust your punting game to a guy that was effectively a street free agent was a stupid move. You pick up your fifth linebacker or your fourth running back on final cutdown days, not your starters.

The guys over at ACME Packing Company have subscribed to the idea that this became Mike Stock's problem because he was insisting that he could train Derrick Frost to become the next Ray Guy (even though week after week he looked a lot more like Ray Stachowicz). It was Stock who was pleading with MM and TT not to cut him, according to ACME.

Maybe that is the case, but I still subscribe to Larry Beightol's theory that "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken [poo]". The talent he was given to work with, again, was street free agent quality. I would postulate that, following FavreGate, McCarthy and Thompson didn't want to have to admit they made a mistake, and that they placed the pressure on Stock to make something out of Frost before they would have to concede.

Mason Crosby is a young kid with a lot of leg and potential, but has struggled in game-winning situations this year, with two missed field goals that would have tied or won the game in the final minutes. The Packers only put Crosby in this situation once in his rookie season, his first game against the Eagles, when he kicked a 42 yarder to pull out a 16-13 win with two seconds remaining.

Other than that, the 2007 Packers never put Crosby in a game-winning or game-tying situation again for the rest of the year. This year, it was clear that Crosby may suffer from the shakes at crunch time. This is not all that dissimilar from another young player on the roster, who comes all the potential in the world but has struggled to finish strong when it counts, Aaron Rodgers.

Is that on Stock? Should Tom Clements be fired for Rodgers' failure to generate a game-winning or trying score in the fourth quarter?

In short, Stock hasn't been given the best of talent to work with. If he is fired for being unable to get street free-agent talent to play at a high level, Winston Moss should be fired for being unable to get a linebacking corps made up of two first-rounders and two fourth-rounders (all signed to lucrative contracts and extensions) to play at even an acceptable level.

The verdict? Well, the story is the Stock retired, and maybe he did without any duress. I'm not sure that is the case, but if no other departures come this season, I am going to be curious as to the reasoning behind it.

The three criteria for a good special teams ?

Fire - this falls on the shoulders of Stock
Discipline - since this was a teamwide issue, this falls on more than just Stock, and likely on the shoulders of Mike McCarthy
Roster depth - the talent on the roster was underestimated by everyone this year, and the lack of depth after drafting 43 players in four years falls on the shoulders of the front office.

Stock is gone, and it will be up to McCarthy to find someone that can replace him effectively. But, unless the discipline and roster depth improves, it isn't likely that Stock's successor will find any more success next year.

And if Stock is the only casualty of the 2008 season, all eyes will be on McCarthy and Thompson for how they plan to improve this team with the same coaches that created the climate that led to the disappointment of 6-10.

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