Next Step: Break Big One

Incredibly, the Packers haven't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Allen Rossum in 2000. Shawn Slocum and Jordy Nelson discuss the heightened expectations for this season in this story by Matt Tevsh.

The Packers have gone nearly a decade without scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return. The drought spans 600 returns and 149 games, not including nine playoff contests.

The last time the Packers went through this long a stretch without scoring on a kickoff was in the 1940s and 1950s when Lisle Blackbourn, Gene Ronzani and, yes, Curly Lambeau were patrolling the sideline.

As the first full week of 2010 training camp comes to an end, there is an internal feeling that this will be the year to finally break the big one.

"We know we were close last year," said Jordy Nelson. "We just have to be able to break a couple more. Watching film, you really see where we're at. We were one block away a lot of times and that's all it takes. Now, you can always say, ‘One block away, but they made the tackle.' You've got to get all 10 guys up front to block and the returner to run where it needs to be returned."

Nelson, a third-year wide receiver, was the Packers' top kick return man a season ago. He averaged 25.4 yards on 25 returns, putting him 11th in the league. As a team, the Packers averaged just 22.1 yards per return.

For what it is worth, Nelson said the Packers' kickoff return unit had a better season than what the statistics indicate.

"The numbers are deceiving," he said. "I don't think we were as bad as some people think. We were consistently outside the 30 (yard line), which was our No. 1 goal. We had one return for a touchdown that was called back. That kills an average right there."

Nelson's 99-yard score on Oct. 18 vs. the Lions was nullified by a holding penalty. Other than that, the Packers never really got close to breaking one. Instead, mediocre returns and penalties became the theme. So that has been the focus the first week of camp — an emphasis on disciplined blocking to eliminate the infractions.


Allen Rossum
Eliot J. Schechter/Allsport
If the Packers can get a cleaner performance from the guys up front on kick returns, they might have a chance from the guy(s) in the back. Including Nelson, dynamic return man Will Blackmon is back from an ACL injury. He, too, saw a kickoff return for a score called back (in 2008) that would have broken the scoreless drought.

While Blackmon has shown a flair for the dramatic on punt returns (three career touchdowns), he has been much less effective on kick returns (just a 21.1 average on 66 returns). Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum says Blackmon is making strides, however, toward being the all-around return specialist the team thinks he can be.

"Returning kickoffs can be a learned quality," said Slocum. "Some guys have it naturally, but it really takes a guy to pour it up in there. I saw him (Blackmon) prior to getting hurt. I was really looking forward to him doing it last year. I thought he had made quite a bit of progress in his preparation and knowledge and understanding of it, so as we move forward through camp, I'm looking forward to him continuing his improvement."

So how is Blackmon's knee doing? Does he have his explosiveness back?

"We'll see. We're right out of the box," said Slocum. "I saw a really excellent jump cut out of him the other day and it got me all excited, so I think he's doing well."

Blackmon's return and Nelson, who started returning kickoffs for the first time in his life as a rookie in 2008, give the Packers their best chance at improvement. Also on the depth chart are Tramon Williams and undrafted rookies Quinn Porter and Sam Shields. Shields, a speedster out of Miami and the fastest player on the Packers' roster, might be making just enough plays as a defensive back to warrant a roster spot as a dual player. Based on raw ability, he might be the Packers' biggest threat to take one to the house.

In addition to the return men, the Packers added Chad Morton to their special teams staff this offseason. Morton's history in college and the NFL of being a big-play return specialist could provide a positive influence as he grows into his new job. For now, he has mainly been working with the perimeter special teams players, according to Slocum.

"Football makes sense to him," said Slocum of Morton. "He's a bright guy, he takes initiative and he brings a lot of energy to the field."

The Packers have been lacking such energy on kickoffs really since Allen Rossum left. Rossum was the last guy to bring a kickoff to the house for the Packers, doing so in 2000. He proved, more than any coaching, that a returner alone can make the difference.

"Once you get past catching the ball, it's all just being a runner," said Nelson. "They can only teach you so much about hitting holes and reading blocks. It's all on the returner after that."

"It's option hole running," added Williams. "If the first hole's not open, it gets to where a back-side hole opens or another hole opens. That's what it takes."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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