OPINION: Careful What You Wish For
The Green Bay Packers elected to move on from the coordinators of two of the three main phases of their football team early this offseason, as special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine were let go after the Packers’ loss in the NFC Championship.
While Mennenga’s dismissal seemed unsurprising given his unit’s bottom-five ranking in 2020 by most major statistical measures, his hiring in the first place should be a cautionary tale as Green Bay moves forward on defense.
Just over two years ago, then-special teams coordinator Ron Zook was increasingly drawing the ire of Packers fans for mistakes made by his unit that were contributing to losses. A fumble by Ty Montgomery taking the ball out of the hands of Aaron Rodgers on a kick return against the Rams, a missed field goal in a three-point loss to the Seahawks and another in a three-point loss to the Cardinals as time expired were just a few examples of the special teams’ failures that season. The new regime led by Matt LaFleur into 2019 did not retain Zook, while bringing Mennenga aboard to right the ship.
Fast forward two years to today, and it is clear that while Zook was a problem, Mennenga was not the solution. Kick return average fell from 21st in the league in 2018 to 31st in 2020, while punt return average fell from 22nd to 30th. Coverage was not any better, as punt return average against fell from 27th to dead last from 2018 to 2020, and kick returns lingered in the bottom half at 23rd after being 29th the last year under Zook. Net punting average saw the biggest dropoff, from 17th in 2018 to 30th in 2020.
So basically, things were bad under Zook and arguably got worse under Mennenga.
That brings us to Pettine, who despite some egregious lapses in the NFC Championship and the occasional questionable personnel matchups in 2020, was an above average coordinator. The Packers were ninth in fewest yards given up in 2020, seventh best against the pass, 10th in sacks, eighth-best in the red zone, 11th-best on third down and had the sixth-fewest penalties. Where they unquestionably lacked however was in takeaways, where they ranked 26th. LaFleur spoke of wanting a more aggressive mindset in his defense going forward, and the hire of former colleague Joe Barry may speak to that.
The two were together on Sean McVay’s Rams staff in 2017, with Barry serving as assistant head coach and linebackers coach. That season, the Rams finished fifth in turnovers. A look back at his resume denotes other successful seasons generating turnovers, including his first season as defensive coordinator in 2015 with Washington (9th) and in 2007 in the same position with the Lions, where they finished third. However, a closer look at his resume also includes such distinctions as being defensive coordinator of a 2008 Lions team that went 0-16 while finishing dead last in yards, points and interceptions.
Meanwhile Pettine found a new home with the Bears, where he will have at least two opportunities a season as a senior defensive assistant to prove the Packers wrong. He will have a fresh opportunity to attempt to recapture some of the magic of his scheme, which has tallied six seasons in 10 years of top-10 rankings in turnovers.
Green Bay will now have to hope not only that Barry gets the best out of their players, but that Pettine does not get the best of them in matchups with Chicago. Those crying for Pettine’s dismissal had also better hope this move does not go the way of Ed Donatell after fourth-and-26, which led to a reactionary firing and revolving door at defensive coordinator for the next three seasons.