All is not lost at the wide receiver position

PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh explains how losing Koren Robinson for the rest of the season, and possibly Robert Ferguson, is not as bad as it seems for the Green Bay Packers.

The double dose of bad news the Packers received this week, effectively losing two of their wide receivers for this season, is a big loss on paper but only a small one when it comes to game day.

Recently acquired free agent Koren Robinson lost his appeal Tuesday to the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy for a second time back in August (when he was still with the Vikings) and has been handed a one-year suspension. Six-year veteran Robert Ferguson has a foot injury that is worse than previously thought and he could miss the remainder of the season.

Both Robinson and Ferguson have occupied the No. 3 receiver positions at different times this season. On Sunday against the Dolphins, that role will be filled by first-year wide receiver Ruvell Martin. Martin will join Donald Driver, star rookie Greg Jennings, and rookie free agent Chris Francies, elevated from the practice squad on Tuesday, to round out the group of receivers expected to be active for the game.

As if the Packers needed any other challenges on offense, now they will have to deal with involving a couple more young receivers. That would seem to be an issue on the surface, but with the way the Packers are running their offense this year, losing Robinson and Ferguson is no big deal and should not affect the Packers production in the passing game.

The Packers have stuck to the basics on offense this year to stay error-free, help the young interior of their offensive line, and gain yardage in smaller chunks. Backup wide receivers have been involved in some of the team's offensive sets, but their production has been minimal. Ferguson had five catches in four games, Robinson had seven in four, and Martin has not caught a pass in the three games he has been active. Those numbers are hardly ones the Packers will be missing. With the No. 9 overall offense in the league, gaining yardage has not been as much of a problem as finding the end zone.

Robinson's limited time with the Packers gave the team a strong indication of his talent. Those abilities, though, were not enough to cure what plagues the offense. The way head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski have laid the foundation, the running game with zone-blocking features and active tight ends will fuel its success. The passing game will only complement it, thus backup receivers, like the No. 3 receiver, have become less important.

Where the value of the No. 3 wide receiver has been is as a role player in certain sets. A wide receiver may be more valuable or attractive than an extra tight end or fullback, for example, when operating a two-minute drill or trying to force another team's hand playing extra defensive backs. The Packers, though, know they are only as good as Brett Favre will lead them in two-minute situations, and they are not nearly good enough to force anyone's hand. Flexibility within their offense is their best chance at success.

"Everything we do out of three wide receivers, we can do out of two tight ends or three tight ends. It's all carry over," said McCarthy. "We don't teach plays by personnel, we teach concepts."

Added Favre, "In my opinion, we have four tight ends that we could go into a four-wide set with all four tight ends. Each one does something very well. We could line up Bubba (Franks) and David (Martin) inside and Donald Lee and Tory Humphrey outside and you've got a mix of speed and blocking there that is a great threat."

Both Robinson and Ferguson are viewed as starting-caliber wide receivers, though each has not sustained high enough levels over their careers. Robinson has been held back by off-the-field substance abuse problems and Ferguson has been affected by injuries. Neither was going to have a huge impact on the Packers' passing production this season, though Robinson's talents may have given Packers coaches something to think about as the season wore on. Now he becomes a long-term project if he can get back on the field next year.

McCarthy showed with his statements on Wednesday that he is ready to move on. The team is not likely to sign a street free agent at wide receiver, a sign the situation is not that dire. McCarthy would rather let preparation take care of the "problem."

"I think it goes back to your off-season planning," he explained. "It goes back to how you build your system referring to your run-game concepts, your pass-protection concepts, your passing concepts. All three levels. We have the flexibility to move in and out of personnel groups. We've talked about that also in the past. When you get into game-planning, you never really want to be one player away from being out of a primary concept or primary focus for that particular game plan."

Favre said on Wednesday he does not see the offensive identity of the team changing sans two wide receivers. That means backups Martin and Francies will not see too many passes thrown their way, especially with weapons like Driver and Jennings. Even with increased attention from opposing defenses, the Packers' starting tandem has been productive. Losing either of those guys? Now that would be a major cause for concern.


Matt Tevsh

Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.


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