Around veteran Mason Crosby, Packers will rely on young specialists
GREEN BAY — As he prepared to enter the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame over the weekend, Ryan Longwell recalled how lucky he was to have one long-snapper — Rob Davis — for virtually his entire tenure.
After being cut by the Chicago Bears at the end of training camp — and working part-time as a bodyguard to then-Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman — Davis took over the Packers’ long-snapping job midway through Longwell’s rookie season of 1997. Once he did, Longwell never had anyone else sending the ball back over a nine-year span.
But he sure had his share of holders. Seven, to be exact, not including the two tours of duty Doug Pederson had as a holder and backup quarterback before his current job as head coach of the defending Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles.
That’s why Longwell is qualified to offer advice to his friend and fellow kicker, Mason Crosby, who will have his fourth holder in four years this season and is hoping to avoid the long-snapper merry-go-round he endured last season, when he had snappers in-and-out of the lineup all year long (Derek Hart, then Brett Goode, then Taybor Pepper when Goode was injured, then Hart again when Pepper was injured, then Goode again once he recovered from a torn hamstring).
This year, fifth-round pick JK Scott is set to take over the punting and holding duties — making him presumably the Packers’ fourth opening-day punter since 2015 (Tim Masthay, Jake Schum, Justin Vogel, and now Scott) — and either seventh-round pick Hunter Bradley or former college lacrosse player Zach Triner will be the snapper (unless both struggle and Goode gets another in-case-of-emergency-break-glass call at the last minute).
“You have to start with really, really strict guidelines on what is expected,” explained Longwell, who once had a holder who’d been working as a bartender (Ryan Flinn) before the Packers called him to be their punter late in the 2005 season. “You have to get these guys to understand, ‘We’re not, like, goofing around here. We’ll help you through it, but the ball’s got to be this way, it’s got to be leaned this way, and as hard as it is to say, you have to do this for us to kick it.’
“It seems overwhelming and it seems like you’ve got to go fast, but the easiest thing to teach a new holder and teach a guy that’s coming into the mix is just to take your time and slow it down. You cannot get frazzled and try to do it too fast, because then that’s trouble.
“Mason’s obviously a professional, he knows exactly where he wants the ball, and it’s those guys’ job to follow his lead. Because he’s definitely proven that he can tell them what to do and how it needs to be.”
Having enjoyed six seasons with Goode as his snapper and Masthay as his holder, Crosby knows he can’t live in the past. It’s up to him to get the youngsters up to speed, and last year’s struggles with the long-snappers was a learning experience.
“Obviously we had the consistency with Tim and Brett. I was fortunate we were together for a long time, so nothing’s going to feel exactly like that,” Crosby said. “So I’m embracing the challenge. And I give JK a lot of credit. He is mature in his process, as far as what I’ve seen early on. He asks lot of questions, he wants to do very well and learn and grow. And then (it’s about) continually working with these young snappers to get the operation right — trying to get them comfortable in the reps and the process so in the crunch time, that crisis time, there’s no stress and you just go out there and perform.”
Here’s a closer look at the special teams units as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice on Thursday morning:
2 Mason Crosby: 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, age 33, 12th year from Colorado.
43 Hunter Bradley: 6-3, 241, 24, rookie from Mississippi State.
57 Zach Triner: 6-2, 247, 27, first year from Assumption.
6 JK Scott: 6-6, 208, 21, rookie from Alabama.
11 Trevor Davis: 6-1, 188, 25, third year from California.
18 Randall Cobb: 5-10, 191, 27, eighth year from Kentucky.
88 Ty Montgomery: 6-0, 216, 25, fourth year from Stanford.
23 Jaire Alexander: 5-10, 196, 21, rookie from Louisville
Can the Packers really go into the season with a rookie punter and rookie long-snapper?
Apparently, that’s their plan. As any specialist will tell you, the competition for his job isn’t limited to those who are in training camp with them. So while Scott will get every chance to be the guy and would have to bomb spectacularly — and early returns in the offseason were encouraging, as he kicked well during practices open to reporters — the fact that last year’s punter (Vogel) was released the day after the draft and there’s no other punter in camp doesn’t guarantee his spot. Nor does Bradley’s status as a seventh-round pick make him a shoo-in for the snapping job, even though he’s only the fourth full-time, pure snapper to be drafted in NFL history.
“Obviously we’ve got to continue to work,” special teams coach Ron Zook said during the offseason after a practice in which there were multiple errant snaps. “Thank God we don’t have to play right now. We’ve got some time to keep working — and we will.”
On the rise
It seems like forever ago that Crosby was the Packers’ biggest special-teams worry, after a horrendous 2012 season. That feels like ancient history now, as Crosby went from hitting just 21 of 33 field-goal attempts in 2012 to an impressive 125 of 147 (85.0 percent) over the past five seasons, including last year, when he was 15 of 19 despite the revolving long-snapper situation. At 33, he is back on top of his game and has no intention of calling it a career anytime soon. As Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri gets ready for his 23rd season at age 45, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talks about playing into his 40s, Crosby is thinking similarly.
“Definitely, definitely,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had a split career at this point, (where) 2012 was that year where now I’m almost into another career from those first five years. So I feel fresh, I feel great, I feel like I can do this for as long as my mind and body will allow me to. That’s my plan. I’m never going to let my foot off the gas.”
Player to watch
It should have been a clue that the Packers weren’t overly enamored with Vogel last season when questions to Zook about him — even as he set the franchise record for net punting average — were met with lukewarm praise at best. Now, after spending a fifth-round draft choice on Scott, it’s obviously his job to lose — and with that kind of investment, the expectations are understandably high. Scott seems to have his head on straight and understand what it means to be a pro. That may be in part because his father, Kim, a former University of Wisconsin pole vaulter, had a friends back in suburban Denver who’d kicked for the Broncos (punter Tom Rouen) who became a mentor to his son, who seems ready for the scrutiny.
“(Rouen) has prepared me so much from the stories he’s told me, the experience he’s had, and the things that he’s taken from these experiences are the things that I need to focus on to prepare,” Scott said. “He’s had me so prepared. That’s the thing about Tom. I’ve always felt prepared because of the things that he’s told me.”
Who’s the returner?
Although Davis finished in the top 10 in the NFL in both punt returning and kickoff returning, change could be coming in the return game. Davis’ roster spot — especially with the wide receiver position in flux — is anything but guaranteed, and the Packers certainly can explore other options. First-round pick Jaire Alexander could be an option as a punt returner, and now that Ty Montgomery isn’t the lead running back, he could go back to returning kickoffs, which he did well earlier in his career.
“Ty will help us,” Zook said. “Obviously all those guys, you take ‘em while you can get ’em. But he can be a returner, he’s good in the return game, he’s good as a cover player. Ty’s a tough guy, he runs well, understands football. The more we can use him obviously the better we’re going to be.”