Searching for a diamond in the rough

The Packers had little luck in their attempt to find a punt returner last year. Green Bay tried a couple of veterans and an unknown with potential but little experience. Nothing worked. If new special teams coach John Bonamego has his way, he'll unveil the next Bobby Shaw.

Shaw is a sixth-year receiver who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to last season after three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh. He was expected to focus on the No. 2 wideout position to replace the departed Keenan McCardell and have nothing to do with special teams. He was a backup punt returner for the Steelers but wasn't planning on returning punts for the Jaguars.

But early in the season the Jaguars needed Shaw to return punts on a regular basis. Shaw accepted the challenge and it turned out to be a good move. Shaw finished as the team's second-leading receiver behind Jimmy Smith with 44 catches for 525 yards, but he was fourth in the AFC averaging 12.4 yard per punt return.

"He was a little bit reluctant to do it," said Bonamego. "When he started to have some success with it, he was starting to have some fun and get more confident. Then the next thing you know, it became an important role for him."

Though he is not about to name anyone as the leading candidate at this point in the year to return punts, Bonamego feels a player like Robert Ferguson could fill the same role this upcoming season in the same way Shaw did for the Jaguars. If not Ferguson, Bonamego gave an indication in his first meeting with the Green Bay media on Friday that a younger player who may not be as well known as Darrien Gordon or Eric Metcalf may be able to help the team's last-ranked kickoff and return units improve this season.

"If (a veteran) is a player who is going to bring something other to the team than just his personal performance," Bonamego said, "if it's somebody who can rally those players and be able to help them and be a locker room guy that's going to help drive home the importance of special teams ... those guys are worth it.

"Otherwise, those guys came into the league (and) no one knew who they were. They became special teams standouts because that's what they had to do to earn a roster spot. That's how they earned reputations. We may have those kind of guys on our roster already. We may draft one or two of those guys not knowing what potential the player ultimately will have. You may have a home-grown version of that. You may have a couple of 'em."

For now, Bonamego is in the process of selling his house in Jacksonville and moving to Green Bay. He is reviewing tape and evaluating players with former special teams coach Frank Novak, who retired on Jan. 10. Bonamego said Novak has been "extremely beneficial" in helping him in the evaluation process. Novak will stick around through the team's off-season minicamps, which begin near the end of March, and into training camp.

Bonamego said there are a few veteran returners in free agency who are attractive, like Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell, but if he has his way, he would prefer to uncover a player like Shaw. Whether it be through the draft or free agency, or a player already on the roster remains to be seen.

"Personally, I think you try and see what you can find," Bonamego said. "Somebody that's a rookie. Maybe a guy out of (NFL Europe). They'll be somebody that will emerge."

Bonamego, 39, was assistant Jaguars' special teams coach from 1999 to 2001 and replaced the retired Frank Gansz last year. Bonamego helped mold punter Chris Hanson, a relatively unknown free agent, into a Pro Bowl selection. Hanson led the AFC in both gross average (44.2, second in NFL) and net average (37.6, fourth in NFL).

Jacksonville's kickoff coverage squad also led the AFC, and finished second in the league behind Carolina, allowing just 19.5 yards per return.

The Jags' punt-return team finished fifth in the AFC, averaging 11.1 yards per return.

Green Bay had the worst punt return unit in the NFL this year, averaging just 4.2 yards per return. The Packers were 26th overall in kickoff returns with a 20.4 yard return average. In 2001, the Packers finished 28th in the league in punt returns and 30th in kickoff returns.

Bonamego's 2002 units blocked four kicks, recorded one touchdown and one safety. Jacksonville also was the only NFL team in 2002 not to allow both a return touchdown and a blocked kick.


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