“Yeah, but ...”
It’s a favorite line uttered by most children. And it was one uttered, in not so many words, by special teams coordinator Ron Zook after the Green Bay Packers’ first minicamp practice on Tuesday.
Last season, Green Bay ranked 14th in the NFL with a 9.0-yard average on punt returns.
Yeah, but ... what if the punt-return team wasn’t called for four costly illegal blocks? Cleaning up those infractions is among the key items on Zook’s to-do list heading into the upcoming season.
“The thing we’ve spent a lot of time here in the offseason is what the other people do in the return (game) — whether it be punt returns or kickoff returns — we’re going to make that as good as we can get it,” Zook said. “Then the returners, they’ve got to do their job. I think we’ve got a chance to make improvement there. We made improvement in punt return this past year but you go back and we had three or four pretty nice returns called back. We would have been top eight in the league.”
Zook is right. On punt returns, the Packers were called for holding six times and illegal blocks above the waist two times. Four of those eight penalties wiped out yards on returns. Two were particularly costly: Marwin Evans’ illegal block above the waist against Detroit in Week 3 turned a 34-yard return by Trevor Davis into a 1-yard return, and Damarious Randall’s illegal block above the waist against Detroit in Week 17 turned a 16-yard return by Micah Hyde into a 0-yard return. Also, holding by Josh Hawkins vs. Seattle in Week 14 turned a 10-yard return by Hyde into a 0-yarder and holding by Blake Martinez at Chicago in Week 15 turned a 7-yard return by Hyde into a 2-yarder.
Those four plays resulted in 64 lost punt-return yards. If those plays had stood — big “ifs,” obviously — Green Bay’s average would have soared to 11.5 yards, which would have ranked fifth.
Eliminating penalties is especially important considering the Packers don’t have a clear-cut returner in either phase. Hyde, who was brilliant handling punts in 2013 and 2014 but didn’t find much running room in 2015 or most of 2016, signed with Buffalo during the offseason. Christine Michael, who served as the returner down the stretch for the league’s 24th-ranked kickoff-return unit, wasn’t retained in free agency and recently signed with Indianapolis.
Perhaps receiver Randall Cobb will be used to return punts. Maybe running back Ty Montgomery, in an effort to get him more touches, will handle kickoff returns. Maybe Davis, who is among the team’s fastest players but is buried on the receiver depth chart, will do double duty in both phases.
For now, Zook isn’t concerned. With better blocking, the returner — whoever it is — should flourish.
“The thing we’ve said is, ‘Let’s make sure that the other 10 guys are the very best that they can be,’” Zook said. “If we could go back and take a couple penalties out of the punt-return game now, all of a sudden, our punt-return game is very respectable. The thing we’ve got to do is give our offense good field position. Obviously, with our offense, the better field position they get, the better chance we’re going to have at being successful.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.