Wanted: Game-breaking return specialist

Packers' return units have struggled since Rossum departed

From 1992 to 2004, the Green Bay Packers did not have one losing season.

The catalysts for such dominance were obvious: Brett Favre, Reggie White, Mike Holmgren, and of course that helpless swing pass that left San Francisco running back Adam Walker decapitated by Wayne Simmons.

But if Dorsey Levens, Robert Brooks, and Green Bay's regular Lambeau Leapers were the ones with their foot on the opposition's throats, it was Desmond Howard, Roell Preston, and Allen Rossum who pushed down.

Former General Manager Ron Wolf never underestimated the need for an explosive returner and the Packers consistently buried teams with backbreaking returns. As current general manager Ted Thompson scans a picked-over free agent pool and preps for April's NFL Draft, landing a returner can't get lost in the shuffle.

Field position is a third of the game. The Packers can no longer bank on mid-round draft picks ala Cory Rodgers. And Green Bay can't let the void linger through training camp and into the season as they've done in recent memory. Eight games into the season is not the time to audition for kick returners as the Najeh Davenport/Ahmad Carroll Experiment painfully illustrated.

It takes a special breed to anticipate wedge busters and instinctively read your walls forming on kick and punt returns, which should rule out regular starters. Don't Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings have enough to worry about?

Jennings is still in the midst of grasping the complicating West Coast offense. And after seeing his route confusion in Week 16 against Minnesota, it'd be ludicrous to add punt returning to his duties.

Expecting Woodson to return a punt immediately after sprinting stride for stride with a receiver 40 yards downfield is a crime to the starting cornerback and the team. Plus, the continuous site of special team kamikazes racing downfield to rip off Woodson's head off isn't exactly enticing. After the veteran picked off an NFC-high eight passes, pitting him as punt returner is a risk not worth taking. The value of shutdown corners is higher than ever as San Francisco justified this week by shelling out $80 million to the underachieving, yet playmaking Nate Clements.

Case in point? Designate a returner.

Reruns of Howard slicing and dicing through New England's coverage units in Super Bowl XXXI en route to an MVP performance should prompt Thompson to seek a return specialist alone. But returners reigned supreme beyond Howard's robotic high-step into the Superdome end zone.

There was Rossum single-handedly winning the game for Green Bay against Tampa Bay in 2001. With less than four minutes left, the Buccaneers punted the ball away to Green Bay with a six-point lead. A couple blinks later, Rossum's 55-yard touchdown runback sealed a 21-20 Packer win.

There was unknown rookie Antonio Freeman dashing 76 yards on a punt return for a score in the 1995 NFC Wild Card against the Atlanta Falcons. The return ignited a 37-20 win and officially put Freeman on the map.

And there was Roell Preston in 1998. As a DR (designated returner), Preston averaged 26 yards per kick return with three touchdowns, meriting a Pro Bowl selection. His 1,497 total kick return yards shattered a 27-year team record as the Packers' were one Jerry Rice fumble away from another possible Super Bowl run.

Preston, Rossum, and Howard probably couldn't land a roster spot in the Arena Football League at their formal positions. Preston caught two passes as a Packer. Rossum, a cornerback, has only two interceptions in nine NFL seasons. When the 1996 Packers receiver corps was devastated by injury, it was Don Beebe and Terry Mickens who stepped up, not Howard.

But as returners they were deadly every time they touched the ball. Their presence on the field gave Green Bay a winner's edge and baffled the minds of every special teams unit they faced. Not many players can make clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri look foolish in a Super Bowl, but Howard did just that.

Now it's someone else's turn.

Will Blackmon, a fourth round selection from Boston College last year, will get a long look during training camp and he should. With 2,700 kickoff return yards at BC, Blackmon was only 222 yard sticks shy of the Division I-A record. But he is coming off a season-ending rib injury and suffered foot problems dating back to last May.

Sure, the receiving unit is expected to be crowded with the expected signing of a free agent or Randy Moss via trade. Nonetheless, Thompson should pinpoint a returner in the free agent market. Unrestricted Indianapolis Colts free agent Terrence Wilkins fits the bill. A lifelong return specialist, Wilkins has eclipsed 1,000 yards on kickoff returns four times in his eight-year career. Last season he scampered for 40 yards or more four times. The longest return any Packer had on kickoffs last fall was a 35-yard runback by Vernand Morency.

There's a chance Koren Robinson could be a serviceable return man and Blackmon may be a diamond in the rough, but it's time for Green Bay to stop ignoring a pivotal role. With plenty of cap room, Thompson has the opportunity to ink a permanent return man. It's time for the glory days of the Darrien Gordon, Antonio Chatman, and Andrae Thurman to officially expire. Some fresh blood is needed badly.

Tyler Dunne is a college student and frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.

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