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Commentary: Give Ferguson a break

There's a reason they call them "suicide squads". Many people consider it the hardest job in football: special teams. Essentially, your job on punt and kick return coverage is to sprint down the field as quickly as you can while two or more players are grabbing, chipping, banging, hitting and blocking you from your objective: the return man.<p>

The position is very important since a big kick or punt return can make the difference between winning and losing a game. To do this job well, you have to have speed, determination and the willingness to sacrifice your body to stop the man with the ball. The Packers have one of the best in the business in Robert Ferguson, the fourth-year wide receiver out of Texas A&M. But playing on kick coverage teams has a price.

Last year, Ferguson started 12 games at wide receiver for Green Bay and played in 15 despite suffering injuries to his knee, ankle, Achilles' tendon and suffering a concussion. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound wideout led the Packers with 17 special teams tackles, placing him fourth in the entire league in that category. In addition to playing on coverage teams, Ferguson also returned kicks in 2003, lining up deep next to Najeh Davenport. In seven kick returns, Ferguson averaged 21.1 yards per try.

Ferguson has flashed the ability to raise his level of play and become a top notch NFL receiver. He elevated his game late in the 2003 season, catching seven passes against the Bears in Green Bay and two touchdowns the following week in San Diego. Ferguson also caught both touchdowns in the Packers season ending playoff loss to Philadelphia. He finished the regular season with 38 catches for 520 yards and four scores. Now he needs to find that higher level on a consistent basis.

Many Packers fans forget that Ferguson came into the NFL with very little experience. He played only one season at Texas A&M after transferring from Tyler Junior College in Texas. Ferguson's rookie year was spent almost exclusively on the inactive list as he adjusted to life in the pros and tried to learn the Packers complex offensive system. He appeared in only one regular season game as a rookie. Each subsequent season, Ferguson's playing time and production has increased.

Ferguson's talent is undeniable. He has good height and better than average speed for an NFL wide receiver. Ferguson fits well into the West Coast offense because of his size and ability to run after the catch. When Ferguson contributes, the Packers usually win. In fact, Green Bay is 7-0 in the regular season in games when Ferguson either led the team in receptions and/or caught a touchdown pass. He is also the best blocker among Packer wide receivers, which gives Ahman Green and the offensive line a big boost when the Packers run the football.

Ferguson is still not guaranteed a starting position in 2004. He will battle with former number one pick Javon Walker for the split end position, as Donald Driver is the likely starter at flanker. All three of these receivers will see plenty of action but Ferguson obviously wants to be on the field for as many plays as possible.

Playing special teams does take practice time away from Ferguson as a wide receiver. Most of the other players on Packers "suicide squads" are backups on offense or defense with the exception of veteran fullback William Henderson. In addition, punt and kick coverage teams put additional wear and tear on Ferguson's body and may have contributed to the run of injuries he suffered through last season. Packer coaches have a tough decision to make with regard to Ferguson's role on special teams. They don't want to hurt the coverage units, but they can't afford to handicap the offense either.

Packers wide receiver coach Ray Sherman thinks Ferguson is due for a big season in 2004. "I expect big things out of him this year because he has a better understanding of the offense," Ray Sherman said. "He made some big plays last year and I expect him to be the guy that's going to continue to do that." To do that, however, Ferguson may need to devote all of his energies towards playing wide receiver. Where can he be of the greatest benefit for the Packers? Mike Sherman may never know what Ferguson is fully capable of as a wide receiver unless he takes him off special teams duty.

– Brad Kurtzberg is a freelance writer from Melville, N.Y.

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