Jason Chery did more than give the Packers beleaguered special teams units a glimmer of hope last Thursday, he sent a clear message as to what special teams are all about. Chery, a mid-training camp afterthought signing that had about as much chance to make the final 53 as a fourth-string quarterback, scintillated the crowd with a late 75-yard punt return for a touchdown...an opportunity he had to plead with the coaches to get.
Pete Dougherty gives a nice writeup on Chery and his sudden thrust to prominence: now apparently after having to beg for a chance to return one punt, he will now be fielding every punt and kick in the last preseason game against the Chiefs.
But one thing really stood out to me in Dougherty's piece: an exuberant Chery described at length the process of petitioning the coaching staff, then getting out on the field. With little time to properly go through the intricate coaching needed to properly field a punt and run it back, Chery got the Cliff's Notes version:
“By the time I finally went out there,” Chery said, “everybody was on me, the whole team was rooting for me, ‘Catch the ball, make sure you catch the ball,’ ‘Be calm,’ this and that. I was like, this is like college all over. The more they were telling me, the more a regular kid, he’ll get nervous.
“So I’m back there, I’m already nervous, my adrenaline is pumping, my eyes are red because I’m emotional — ‘Finally, my time.’ Then I said, ‘OK, catch the ball.’ So I caught the ball, and then I was, ‘OK, what am I going to do? So I caught the ball and made one move, because coach said, ‘Make one move and hit it.’ I did exactly what they told me to do, and I hit it.”
So, there you go: just catch the ball, make one move, and score. Sure, it doesn't hurt that Chery has 4.3 speed, but then, so does Sam Shields. In a nutshell, Chery may have revealed one of the issues plaguing the special teams: is it possible Slocum is trying to do too much?
Last week, I talked with Wally Pingel over at PocketDoppler, and hearing Chery seemed to echo my concerns I mentioned about special teams and Shawn Slocum.
More than anywhere else on a football team, special teams are all about fundamentals and execution. It’s always the same: snap, hold, kick; or field the kickoff, set up the wedge, and make your blocks. There’s no formation changes, no play-action, no disguising coverages. You don’t have the chess match like the offense and defense do. The breakdown on special teams is a breakdown of the most basic skills football players need to have, and that puts the bullseye squarely on the coach.It's like a free throw in basketball. There's no strategy, no plays called, no zone defense or man-to-man...you line up at the exact same point, with no defense, and try to hit the front of the rim exactly ten feet high and thirteen feet away. It's about discipline, fundamentals, and doing the same motions naturally and consistently.
Special teams in football are similar...oh, don't get me wrong, I know there's a world of difference between the opposing players parting like the Red Sea and letting you shoot a free throw and all them coming straight at you with blood-curdling kamikaze screams. But returning a punt shouldn't be that hard. I took a little ribbing during the game last week when I asked how hard it had to be to catch a punt. Yet, Chery did it, only thinking about the essentials: catch it, one move, run.
When you think about the difficulties the Packers have had with special teams, several names come to mind: Mason Crosby and his blind spot on the right hashmark, Jarrett Bush and Derrick Martin with their dumb penalties. Slocum himself claimed last season he had to essentially bring Crosby back to ground zero in terms of his technique and start him over from scratch. Why?
Derrick Martin, who added some unnecessary contact a couple of weeks ago against Seattle, compounds the problem with his swaggering attitude. Despite his own head coach angrily denouncing his actions, Martin defied the admonishment, claiming McCarthy only has to do that for show.
Asked if the coaches were mad at him, Martin said yes.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do. You get ejected from the game, they’re supposed to yell at you,” Martin said. “So they yelled at me and we’re moving on.”
Nevertheless, Martin maintained his innocence and vowed not to change the way he plays.
“You can expect high intensity every play. I’ll be like that the whole time,” Martin said. “From what I’ve seen on film, I feel like I’ve played inside the rules of the game. If I get fined we will appeal it just to see. I feel like I did nothing wrong. I play like that every week – high intensity, high power, high aggression. And I will continue to play that way.”
Quite a difference in attitude between Chery and Martin, isn't there? Now, I'm not saying this is the entire crux of the problems with special teams...I have a feeling it goes far deeper than that. But, the idea that Martin is worrying more about his intensity, power, and aggression instead of worrying about what his coverage duties are tends to be a warning flag to me. If he were truly concerned about his coverage duties, he wouldn't have been fisticuffing with an opponent while the ball was still in play.
Focus on your role and assignments on special teams is paramount, and executing them is the key to success. It's not rocket science...it's fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental (and the most methodical) you will find in football. The holder snaps the ball to a predetermined spot each and every time. The holder must field the ball and place it in the correct predetermined spot each and every time. The kicker must execute his kick at the right power and angle each and every time.
There's always room for physical error, but on special teams, there's no room for mental error, or a lack of discipline. Give Chery, who earned several conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors while at Louisiana-Lafayette, a chance to show he's coachable.
And then, K.I.S.S--Keep It Simple, Slocum.