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Drayton Out as Special Teams Coordinator After Months of Empty Words

Week after week, Maurice Drayton said the Packers' special teams were trending the right way. Instead, the season ended with an epic disaster.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Maurice Drayton talked the talk. But because his units couldn’t walk the walk, he was one-and-done as the Green Bay Packers’ special teams coordinator.

In the wake of a playoff debacle of epic proportions, Drayton has been fired by coach Matt LaFleur, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein. Whoever LaFleur hires will be the Packers’ third coordinator in three seasons and the latest in a long line of coaches trying to fix the team’s perennially downtrodden units.

Under Drayton, the Packers finished last in Rick Gosselin’s 43rd annual special teams rankings. That came on the heels of finishing 29th in 2020 and 26th in 2019 under Shawn Mennenga, and 32nd under Ron Zook during Mike McCarthy’s final season of 2018. In fact, the Packers have finished 20th or worse in seven of the past nine seasons. They have not fielded a top-10 unit since 2007, which shows it’s an organizational problem as much as anything.

Drayton was the latest coach tasked with turning lemons into lemonade. He came highly recommended.

“We have to continue to get better and just continue to take baby steps each day,” Drayton said before the first preseason game. “If we get a little bit better each day, by the first time the first preseason game hits, the second preseason game, the third preseason game, opening game, we should be exactly where we need to be.”

Drayton talked with similar bravado throughout his abbreviated tenure.

“The beauty of it is, I call our room where we are the ‘Truth Room.’ We’re going to tell the truth,” Drayton said during his introductory news conference when asked about the two disappointing 2018 draft picks he inherited, punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley.

The truth is Drayton’s units started poorly and never even got close to being “exactly where we need to be.” The problems weren’t all his fault.

General manager Brian Gutekunst, who made the mistake of drafting Scott and Bradley in the first place, didn’t commit to replacing them until it was too late. Gutekunst acquired punter Corey Bojorquez at the end of training camp and dumped Bradley at midseason. Those changes helped put reliable kicker Mason Crosby – who didn’t miss any field goals in 2020 – into a funk he could never quite shake.

“I know the guys are working at it. We are working at it,” Drayton said on Nov. 26. “No one feels worse than those three individuals who it directly affects, meaning the snapper, holder and kicker. And I can tell you and assure you that we are fighting hard to get on the same page to have that operation down pat like a fine well-oiled machine.”

The changes in the field-goal operation weren’t an excuse, Drayton added.

“I tell my children this all the time: Excuses are the tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges that lead to nowhere. Those who deal in excuses build monuments dedicated to nothing. Therefore, we’re not going to deal in excuses. So, that’s not an excuse. That is the facts, that’s the factual answer to what we’re going through at this time.”

With an unreliable kicker and the lack of an impact returner, Green Bay was all-around bad. The Packers finished 32nd in average starting field position following a kickoff, 26th in opponent starting field position after a kickoff, 20th in net punting average, 24th in opponent net punting average and 31st in field-goal accuracy.

Rookie receiver Amari Rodgers struggled to even field punts and rookie running back Kylin Hill averaged less than 20 yards on kickoff returns before a season-ending knee injury. Special teams might have cost the Packers a chance to win with Jordan Love at quarterback at Kansas City, and seven enormous mistakes put the Packers on upset alert against Chicago.

“We’re really close,” Drayton said in October. “To the uninitiated, and what I mean by that is those who do not study special teams and understand it, they think it’s still the same old Packers. That’s not the case on some of these units. We’re really close, but if you don’t the trained eye to see where that’s really close, you’ll think we’re in the same spot. But we’re really close. … We’re going take these baby steps and just keep going on it, making it bigger. And by the end of the season, we’ll be where we need to be, when it really counts.”

It all came to a head in the playoff loss to San Francisco with three season-killing mistakes. The first was a blocked field goal just before halftime in which veteran defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster didn’t block Jimmie Ward. The second came on the kickoff to start the second half, with Deebo Samuel taking the ball to midfield to set up the 49ers for a field goal. The third was the back-breaker. With Green Bay clinging to a 10-3 lead late in the game, Jordan Willis bull-dozed snapper Steven Wirtel. The personal protector, safety Henry Black, was too busy running out on coverage to help. The punt was blocked and scooped up for the tying touchdown.

That was a 13-point swing in a game the Packers lost by three points.

For the pièce de résistance, the Packers had only 10 players on the field for the field goal that ended the 49ers’ season. Of course, the Packers could have 14 players on the field and not blocked the kick.

The words of the coaches leading up to the game were incredible.

For San Francisco, the goal entering the game was simple.

“My No. 1 goal is to not lose on special teams,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.

For Green Bay, it was more of Drayton’s bravado.

“Over the last three weeks, we’re definitely trending up,” Drayton said. “I think I mentioned before that our practices have been on point and the guys are now transferring what they’re doing in practice to the game field, so we feel very encouraged, they are very encouraged and I’m excited to see what they’re going to do here on Saturday night.”

Two days after the season, LaFleur spoke of personnel problems and not Drayton’s shortcomings.

“San Francisco had a lot of their starters on special teams,” LaFleur said. “That’s going to be something that I want to do some studies around the league and see how many teams operate that way.”

That sounds good. The only problem is it wasn’t true. Perhaps showing that he’s out of touch with the third phase of the game: 21 Packers played at least half the snaps on offense and defense in that game. Those players logged 38 snaps on special teams. The 49ers had 23 players with 50 percent playing time. Those players logged 41 snaps on special teams.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board. Having fired his coordinator after each of the past two seasons, LaFleur must convince someone with intelligence, creativity and coaching ability to turn around a group that has been bad year after year after year.

“Ultimately,” LaFleur said, “it all falls on me.”