State of returns cause for concern

If the Packers want to return to the NFC Central penthouse, they'll have to pull their return game out of the basement.<p> The Packers ranked 31st in the league in kickoff returns coming into week 11 with a 16.4-yard average.<p> Instead of improving their lot this week, the Packers saw their special teams take a step backward when Allen Rossum injured his right knee.

The injury involved damaged cartilage - not a torn ligament, as first announced , so Rossum's season isn't over yet although his return to the lineup won't be known until tests are completed.

Rossum suffered the injury sometime during the first half of the Packers' 29-27 win over the Lions. He stayed in the game until early in the fourth quarter.

"I was in pain the whole game," Rossum said.

So the question about Rossum is "when?". The question about the return game remains "who?".

"I'd like to find somebody who gives us a better chance to get the ball upfield," special teams coach Frank Novak said.

James Rooths and Robert Ferguson fielded punts at practice Monday, and are hoping for a shot at the job, each arriving from vastly different perspectives.

Rooths is a practice squad cornerback who returned punts at Div-3 Shepherd College (W. Va.). Rooths returned 10 punts for TDs, an NCAA record.

"I've been waiting for this moment since August," Rooths said.

The Packers are still waiting for Ferguson, who has never returned kickoffs or punts, to realize the potential of his high draft status.

"If I do it, I do it," Ferguson said. "I'd rather be catching passes. Anything to get on the field right now."

Wide receiver Antonio Freeman stepped in when Rossum was out with a hamstring injury earlier this season. That has two obvious downsides: the Packers are putting their starting receiver at addition risk for injury and Freeman hasn't been effective enough to make that risk worthwhile.

Coach Mike Sherman said he's willing to give Rooths a look, and added that he was in favor of staying "in house" while searching for his go-to guy.

That choice may be due to bad timing rather than loyalty. Several notable returnmen were cut loose and subsequently snapped up by new teams just last week.

"We'll have to see how (Rossum) is and what's out there," vice president of football Mark Hatley said. "They all got signed.

Glyn Milburn, who served a memorable stint in Packer training camp before landing with the Bears, now signed with San Diego. Minnesota re-signed Nate Jacquet, while Leon Johnson and Eric Metcalf are also among kick returners recently finding a new home.

Finding the right man to carry the ball isn't the only problem facing the return team. Blocking has been suspect, reducing Rossum to an 18.7-yard kick return average. Punt returns have been stronger in comparison, with Rossum's 9.9-yard punt return average with one 55-yard TD return.

The Packers don't have much company in the kick return cellar. Only 3 other teams – Kansas City, New York Giants and Seattle – are averaging below 20-yards per kick return.< Contrast that with the last time the Packers made the playoffs (1998). Roell Preston average 26.3 yards on kickoff returns with two touchdowns (including a 101-yarder). Last season Rossum averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns with a 92-yard TD.

"We did not block very well on returns," Sherman said of his team's latest effort. "It was discouraging to start at the 18 or 19-yard line."

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