Return game stuck in neutral

Kickoff and punt return units in need of overhaul

The Packers special teams' return units, which have been average at best this season and in recent seasons for that matter, were a disaster last Sunday in Philadelphia.

Two fumbles on kickoff returns, one by ReShard Lee and one by Andrae Thurman, were recovered by the Eagles before quickly being converted into 10 points. Lee's fumble in the first quarter led to the Eagles' first touchdown, and Thurman's fumble late in the fourth quarter led to an Eagles' field goal that extended their lead to five points. Just as important, the Eagles chewed up the clock after Thurman's fumble and forced the Packers to use their final timeout, which could have come in handy on their last offensive drive, one that resulted in a game-ending interception in the end zone.

Those special teams' miscues have head coach Mike Sherman thinking about changes this week in preparation for a game with the NFC North division-leading Chicago Bears. Sherman would not say at his press conference on Wednesday who exactly would get the start as the primary kickoff return man, but rather that he would use practice to work a number of players out.

Whoever Sherman ends up choosing on Sunday may be a safe pick, but no one on the active roster right now is the threat the Packers need. Even if the Packers had an entirely healthy roster, it would be difficult to find the type of game-breaker that could have changed the course of what has become a dismal season. Instead, the Packers continue to search for a dynamic return man that could have converted one or two of those close losses into one or two close wins.

Special teams return men are not a dime a dozen, even if they sometimes may seem so. With just one big return, they can change the momentum and outcome of a game. Just ask the 1996 Packers who needed every ounce of Desmond Howard's brilliance to win a Super Bowl title, even with an ultra-talented team.

The Packers this year, though, have been devoid of a play-maker on their return units just as they have been on offense and defense. Injuries to Najeh Davenport and Robert Ferguson have stripped the kickoff return team of two potential solid performers, but even when healthy, neither player strikes fear into the opposition nor is a long-term solution. Six others have taken their shots as the deep return man, including rookie Terrence Murphy (who is on injured reserve and thus got a limited chance), but none has done or shown anything to indicate that they can give the Packers a lift in that area.

Sherman has employed the philosophy of trying not to use starters in return roles since he took over as head coach in 2000, and the Packers have not had a real threat to take one all the way since they failed to re-sign Allen Rossum after the 2001 season. Rossum is the last player for the Packers to return a punt for a touchdown (2001) and a kickoff for a touchdown (2000).

Since the 2002 season, the Packers have gone through at least 12 primary return men with little success. One of those players is Antonio Chatman, who continues to be an error-free punt returner, but hardly a weapon at a time when the Packers needed him to be this season. He has gone 99 punt returns without a touchdown and has 57 fair catches over the past three seasons. He has not returned kicks much this year, but has not reached paydirt on 51 such tries in the previous two seasons. Still, Sherman values him for his ball-security skills over explosiveness, and thus, much like the team, he is a specialist just good enough to be competitive, but not one that can win a game.

Few can doubt Sherman for wanting a reliable return man like Chatman that he can count on to take care of the ball, but this year that has proven to be not good enough. With the injuries piling up the way they have been, the Packers' options are pretty limited for the rest of this season. That could leave two of the team's best athletes, Ahmad Carroll or Ferguson, as possible changes this week on kickoff returns. The Packers also signed rookie running back Noah Herron on Wednesday off the Steelers' practice squad, and he could get a look as well.

As the Packers enter Week 13, they are tied for last in the league in kickoff return average (19.3 yards per return) and are 14th in punt return average (8.3 yards per return). Lee leads the team with 15 kickoff returns (for a 21.3-yard average) and a long return of 35 yards. Chatman is the only player who has fielded punts, returning 34 (for an 8.3-yard average) with a long of 36 yards.

Certainly, it should be noted, the Packers' return fortunes are not just dependent on one player. They are also dependent on the blocking of 10 other players and the schemes of special teams' coach John Bonamego. They will need to take a long, hard look, however, at their philosophy in appointing return specialists regardless of what happens the rest of this season. If that means using a starter to return punts or kicks or sacrificing perceived stability for potential breakaway ability, then they should consider a change. What they have now is not getting the job done and only magnifies mistakes, like those last Sunday, much more than if they had a dangerous return man back there.


Matt Tevsh

Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.


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