GREEN BAY — Perhaps Rich Bisaccia’s insistence on calling special teams “WE-fense” is a little corny. Of course, if you’d like to be the one to tell the new Green Bay Packers somewhat curmudgeonly 62-year-old special-teams coordinator that, proceed at your own risk.
Bisaccia, the former Las Vegas Raiders interim head coach and a turnaround specialist for special-teams units across the league for the past two decades, opened his first Q&A session of training camp with reporters on Wednesday afternoon by making it crystal clear he didn’t want to be there.
And while he was insightful and responsive, he also was all-business.
“I’m here to take any questions you may have for a very brief time,” he said sternly.
It was a small taste of what Bisaccia’s players have been experiencing, except it’s safe to say Bisaccia doesn’t feel the same love for the media as he does for his players, as he gets after them for mistakes but still makes sure they know he loves them.
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Through the first three weeks of training camp, Bisaccia has been unyielding in his pursuit of improvement from a group that finished dead last in the 32-team NFL in longtime pro football columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual special-teams rankings — and saw its season come to an end with a cavalcade of special teams gaffes in the playoffs (a blocked field goal, a blocked punt for a touchdown and only 10 men on the field for the San Francisco 49ers’ victory-clinching field goal).
Coach Matt LaFleur, who made Bisaccia the NFL’s highest-paid special-teams coach after that playoff debacle, knew what kind of coach he was getting, and Bisaccia hasn’t disappointed — though at least one of the ex-Raiders who knows Bisaccia well insists he’s softened slightly.
“He’s going to be the same person every day,” said cornerback Keisean Nixon, who played for Bisaccia with the Raiders. “I think he’s a little more revved up just because he’s teaching his new system here, but he’s a lot more chill here than he was in Vegas, actually. I think the small city calms him down. It doesn’t take him forever to get to work, he’s a lot more calm when he gets here.
“I’ve been in his system my whole career, so I know damn near anything that’s going to come out of Rich’s mouth. What I like here is, everybody’s willing to play their part. But it’s a process.”
Added safety Dallin Leavitt, another ex-Raiders player who is currently sidelined by a shoulder injury suffered in last week’s preseason opener against the 49ers: “He helps players understand the team aspect. Special teams is unique — I play defense, but on special teams I play next to a running back or a tight end. He really pushes us to buy into each other.
“I mean, I love the dude. I know he cares about his players — but he cares more about us as people. But he talks about it all the time: ‘Earn your teammates’ respect through your work, not so much talk. Just how you act day-in and day-out.’ We see that from him: He’s in here grinding day after day trying to put his players in the best position, and so the respect goes both ways.
“Football is an emotional game, so it allows him to be emotional with us, knowing it comes from a place of love, from him wanting us to be the best players we can be.”
While Leavitt, Nixon and cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Rico Gafford all were familiar with Bisaccia’s style after spending time with him in Oakland/Las Vegas, other players have had to acclimate themselves to his style.
But, they know Bisaccia has the success to back up his tough-love approach: The Raiders ranked 11th in Gosselin’s special-teams rankings in 2021, and since 2006, Bisaccia’s units have finished in the top 10 six times. He also has a history of taking over disappointing groups, most notably taking over a Dallas Cowboys unit that ranked 17th in 2012 and lifting it to No. 4 in 2013.
Asked about his philosophy, Bisaccia referenced legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s quote of “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care” — which was actually said by President Theodore Roosevelt before the Wizard of Westwood said it — when explaining his process for connecting with and correcting his players.
“I think over my time, I’ve tried to adopt that. I think if they can understand that every word that comes out of my mouth is to honor their dreams and what they want to accomplish, then I think they take more out of what I’m saying than how I’m saying it,” said Bisaccia, who relies on special-teams assistants Byron Storer and Micheal Spurlock to soften some of the blows to players.
“I’m probably the hardest on (young players) because they have to come in and play.”
LaFleur has clearly gotten on board with the “WE-fense” concept, going so far as to rename special-teams meetings on the team schedule each day. And given the Packers’ struggles in that area during his first three seasons, LaFleur knew the buy-in had to start with him.
“Unfortunately, it hasn’t been good enough here — at least in my time. It’s been a big emphasis,” LaFleur said. “I will say that the buy-in from our veteran players has been unbelievable when you see some of the guys that are out there that are contributing on ‘WE-fense.’ They all understand how important it truly is.”
Bisaccia thinks he got “WE-fense” from former South Carolina head coach Sparky Woods — “I’m sure I stole it from somewhere,” Bisaccia said, “(because) I’m probably much better at stealing things than I am at inventing things” — but he insists it’s more than just for show.
“There was a point in college (football) where there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to special teams and I was fortunate enough to be with a college coach that thought it should be an emphasis,” Bisaccia said of Woods. “It just became something that we could all do together. It wasn’t just guys that played on offense or just guys that played on defense. It was something that we could all do together to help our team win. And it’s just kind of grown from that. Coach LaFleur’s done a great job of making it part of our vernacular around here.”
The next step is to make strong special-teams play part of the culture as well, and that’s slightly more challenging.
With veteran kicker Mason Crosby (knee) still on the physically unable to perform list, inexperienced long-snapper Jake Coco learning on the job, uncertainty on who’ll handle punt and kickoff returns, and jobs to be sorted out on all of the protection and coverage units, the clock is ticking until the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at Minnesota.
“I think the process has been going well. It’s moving in the right direction,” Bisaccia said. “There’s a lot of collaborative effort going into the players that we’ve brought in and the players that we’re coaching and the direction that we’re trying to go.
“I think we’re a work in progress, and we’ll just hope to keep seeing improvement as we go along.”