My colleague Tom Herrera sometimes talks about this generation of hyper-knowledgeable NFL fans, thanks to the proliferation of fantasy football and better exposure to all 32 teams. And yet there are still large amounts of people who underestimate, outside of your obvious game-changing and/or explosive plays, the impact of special teams on the final score.
So it goes.
For the second straight week, our focus is on a Florida team pulling out a win in which special teams made a large impact. Sometimes that impact was obvious, sometimes it wasn't. Yet it was a constant presence in one of the most embarrassing losses of the season, one which might have broken the camel's back in Green Bay.
Just like almost any NFL game Jake Delhomme's not involved in, Sunday's 38-28 loss to the Bucs was comprised of a few factors. For one, it was another chapter in the "Is the problem Aaron Rodgers or the Packers' offensive line?" debate, which is the 2009 version of the "Is the problem David Carr or the Texans' offensive line?" debate, which is the 2002 version of the chicken or the egg debate.
But in looking at the performance of the Packers' special teams, even a mediocre performance would have made the difference between a win and a loss. And now the talk is very real that Mike McCarthy could be on borrowed time.
First, let's look at the two big plays.
With the Packers holding a 14-7 lead a few minutes into the second quarter, they're forced to punt from their 41-yard line. As you get closer to the end of each half, field position takes almost as big of a role as scoring. With a long field, you're obviously hoping to get points, but more importantly you're hoping for a few first downs to flip field position for a potential two-minute drive. The Packers didn't face a long field -- they started the drive on their own 35 -- but were forced to settle for the field position. Worst case scenario, Jeremy Kapinos can't pin the Bucs and the Packers settle for a touchback. Even then, an 80-yard field for the Bucs offense (before Josh Freeman came along, anyway), would pretty much guarantee another punt back to the Packers.
It's a simple pressure up the middle by Tampa. Fullback John Kuhn, offset to the left of the punter, ignores Geno Hayes blowing through the line to his right and instead goes to help double-team on a block to a less-threatening rusher than Hayes. Big mistake. Hayes practically "intercepts the snap," as Deion Sanders put it, leading to one of the easiest blocked punts and most egregious special teams blocking schemes I've seen in a while. Not only do the Packers lose field position, they lose the lead after the punt is taken back to the house.
On the second, the Packers lead 28-17 immediately after Rodgers' touchdown run. FanHouse's resident Packers expert, Bruce Ciskie, points out that Mason Crosby's kickoff is supposed to pin the Bucs on the sideline, but instead is low and down the middle of the field. The Packers' initial group of would-be tacklers can't get an arm around Smith early, as he finds a nice seam at about the 15. Another would-be tackler lunges at his ankles and can't get anything, then two Packers get Smith pinned on the left sideline at the Packers' 35, but Smith makes them look just pitiful, cutting back and splitting the two. He eventually goes down at the 17, and it takes the Bucs only three plays to score a touchdown that gets them back in the game.
Even just looking at the two big plays, that's 14 points that are likely off the board if the Packers can give the Bucs a longer field to work with. And those 14 points could have made the difference between an underachieving Packers team that let a bad team stick a little too close, and a Packers team that faces serious questions when they look in the mirror, foremost of which is whether the guy calling the plays is good enough to cut it.