GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a move many expected after several critical mistakes in a 13-10 divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur has removed Maurice Drayton as special teams coordinator, a person familiar with the move told the USA TODAY Network. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss.
The Packers allowed a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown, a blocked field goal just before halftime and a 45-yard kickoff return in the loss to the 49ers. Several player miscues during the game resulted in a devastatingly poor performance that proved to be a major reason the Packers were eliminated.
Drayton’s units ranked 32nd in the Rick Gosselin special-teams rankings, but the Packers didn’t give Drayton much help, especially on kickoffs, returns and long snapping. However, the rankings don’t consider those things and it would have been difficult for LaFleur to justify keeping the status quo on special teams.
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Drayton spent three seasons with the Packers as an assistant to Ron Zook and Shawn Mennenga before being promoted to special teams coordinator last year. LaFleur fired Mennenga after two years and had been impressed with Drayton, who was a candidate for the job when LaFleur was hired.
With 21 years of coaching experience, including two years as a special teams assistant with the Indianapolis Colts and nine years at his alma mater, The Citadel, Drayton brought a thinking man’s approach to special teams. He did many studies on trends and tendencies of NFL special teams and was extremely detailed in explanations of his coaching decisions.
But when it came to execution on the field, his units never found consistency.
They improved from the previous year in categories such as punt return average, opponent punt return average and opponent field position after kickoff and ranked ninth in fewest penalties committed. But they ranked 30th in kickoff return average, 32nd in average drive start after kickoff, 26th in opponent average drive start after kickoff and 31st in field-goal percentage.
The front office failed Drayton in never solving the long snapper position, which resulted in kicker Mason Crosby having the second-worst year of his career in field-goal accuracy (73.5%). Hunter Bradley developed a hitch in his snaps and the personnel department decided to go with Steve Wirtel, a practice squad pickup who had been in the Los Angeles Rams’ camp.
Wirtel was a slightly better snapper, but he was not as stout as Bradley at the line of scrimmage and the 49ers took advantage of it with linebacker Jordan Willis blasting past him for the blocked punt.
The front office also left Drayton devoid of a return game. He was forced to use a pair of rookies — Amari Rodgers and Kylin Hill — and their inexperience showed. Rodgers couldn’t field the ball cleanly, had trouble judging trajectory and was too slow to make anything happen. Hill had some promise but unwisely returned a kick several yards deep in the end zone and wound up tearing his ACL when he was blasted on the return.
General manager Brian Gutekunst gave Drayton an option when he signed veteran David Moore to the practice squad and Drayton used him against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17. Moore returned three punts for 33 yards and showed he could field the ball cleanly.
However, in the playoff game, LaFleur and his staff chose not to bring Moore up from the practice squad. They also chose to keep safety Shawn Davis, one of Drayton’s better special-teams players, inactive.
So, for the third time in his tenure, LaFleur must address the position.
LaFleur will be on the hunt for a veteran special teams coach who can turn the unit around immediately. He lost out on a chance to hire Chicago Bears special teams coach Chris Tabor, who went to Carolina, but may be able to grab someone who is in limbo because of a head-coaching change.
Among those are Houston’s Frank Ross, who had the 14th-ranked unit, the New York Giants’ Thomas McGaughey (10th), the Las Vegas Raiders’ Rich Bisaccia (11th), who was the team’s interim coach after Jon Gruden was fired, Minnesota’s Ryan Fickman (15th) and Miami’s Danny Crossman (22nd).
New Orleans Saints special teams coach Darren Rizzi (5th), who was a strong candidate for the Packers’ job in ’19, still has a year remaining on his deal and probably will be retained even though the Saints are looking for a replacement for head coach Sean Payton.
LaFleur didn’t announce the Drayton move, but he did announce that receivers coach Jason Vrable would be promoted to wide receivers / passing game coordinator and assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus was being promoted to offensive line coach.
Vrable replaces Luke Getsy as passing game coordinator. Getsy left to become offensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears.
Butkus replaces Adam Stenavich, who was promoted to offensive coordinator.
In addition, LaFleur promoted special teams assistant Connor Lewis to assistant quarterbacks coach and offensive quality control assistant Ryan Mahaffey to assistant offensive line coach.
LaFleur will have to replace tight ends coach Justin Outten, who is expected to be named new Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett’s offensive coordinator, and fill the quarterbacks position Getsy held.