Packers aim to solve return woes
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--There was a lot of discussion in the Green Bay Packers coaching offices this past week about the position the team's kickoff return game is in.
For the record, that would be 32nd.
Coming out of the bye week, the Packers are averaging 12.1 yards per kickoff return, the worst of any team in the NFL and 4.8 yards fewer than the second-worst team. They are one of only nine teams that have lost a fumble during a kickoff return.
Their average drive start after kickoff of 19.1 yards is second worst in the NFL and a definite detriment to the offense.
In assessing where the Packers (1-2) are coming out of the bye, coach Mike McCarthy referenced several areas that needed to be addressed, including turnover ratio and pass defense. Both were talked about at length during coaching meetings last week, but no drastic changes are expected, he said.
The return game is a completely different matter.
The Packers made the decision to end the Jeremy Ross option last week when they released him a day after he had a critical fumble in the 34-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. So at the same time they are considering how to improve the return game as a whole, they are looking for a returner.
The simplest move would be to hand over the duties to receiver Randall Cobb, who last year ranked 12th in kickoff return average at 25.4 yards and 14th in punt return average at 9.4 yards. Cobb muffed three chances last year but recovered all three and proved far more reliable than his rookie season when he lost three fumbles on returns.
“The return game is something that really will take the work to work through,” McCarthy said Monday. “We have some candidates. Whether Randall will do it or won't do it, we'll let the week play that out. It's a focus. It's been a focus since we made the change.”
So for this year, Cobb has fielded five punts and one kickoff. Four of his punt return chances were fair catches and the other was a 16-yard return. Part of the problem in the punt return game is that only three have been returned.
Cobb's lone kickoff return was only 10 yards. Ross averaged 10 yards on two punt returns and 12.5 yards on six kickoff returns.
Cobb said it would not take any adjustment for him to become the full-time returner because he practiced it all during training camp and has continued to do so during the regular season.
“Nothing's changed so far,” he said. “I'm still practicing the same way I've been practicing, the way I've practiced all through OTAs, all through training camp, as a returner. We don't know for certain what the deal's going to be.
“In this business anything can change. It's a lot of time before the game, so we don't know what it's going to be when the time comes. As of right now, I've got to prepare myself for me being that guy.”
Cobb said he couldn't say whether being a full-time returner would affect his performance at wide receiver. He leads the team in receptions (21) and receiving yardage (290) and is the only prototypical slot receiver the Packers have.
“I'm out there to play every down as hard as I can and give 100 percent effort, 110 percent effort every play that I'm out there,” Cobb said. “So regardless of whether it's a special teams play or offensive play I've got to go out there with the same mind-set, the same mentality.”
A surprise option for returns could be practice-squad addition Reggie Dunn, who was signed Monday and took some reps catching punts after practice. The 5-9, 178-pound rookie set an NCAA record with five 100-yard kickoff return touchdowns while at the University of Utah.
Last year, he returned four of 10 kickoffs for touchdowns en route to averaging 51.3 yards. During his three years at Utah, he averaged 30.88 yards per return.
He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers after going undrafted and took part in three preseason games, averaging 36.5 yards on two kickoff returns and 9.9 yards on seven punt returns. After being cut, he worked out with the New England Patriots and had a date set up for a workout with the Packers.
“I've been in contact with them for a couple of weeks,” Dunn said after practice. “They wanted to bring me up here for a workout after the bye week.
“So I got here today, worked out, signed and right after I signed I got dressed and went out to practice.”
Dunn said he was a punt returner as well all through high school, but when he got to Utah, Shaky Smithson, who got a shot with the Packers two years ago, was the punt returner. After Smithson left, the coaches decided to keep Dunn at a hold-up position across from the gunners on the return unit.
He said he felt very comfortable returning punts.
“I did it all my life except for college,” Dunn said. “I did it in Pittsburgh in the preseason. I almost broke one against Washington. Hopefully, I get another opportunity.”
It's probably a long shot that the Packers would turn to Dunn right away, especially with a key NFC North game against Detroit coming up, but like with Ross and DuJuan Harris before him, he could grow on the coaches through his work on the practice squad and become a part of the 53-man roster in a few weeks.
Dunn said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.22 and 4.26 seconds on his pro day, both of which were times from a stopwatch. He also had a 36-inch vertical jump and raised 225 pounds 17 times on the bench, according to published reports.
In order for him to play, the Packers would have to release somebody because they replaced Ross on the 53-man roster with practice squad running back Michael Hill. Dunn plays wide receiver, but the Packers are already down to four and aren't going to let one of them go.
McCarthy probably would have no hesitation going with rookie running back Johnathan Franklin on kickoffs were he not in a bit of a bind at the position. Neither James Starks (knee) nor John Kuhn (hamstring) practiced and if they can't play Sunday, McCarthy might not want to risk working Franklin there.
As for whether he could handle the duties, Franklin, who is not a natural returner and struggled with it early in training camp, said he would do whatever the coaches decided.
“I just love to play the game of football,” he said.
McCarthy said Hill could be an option on kickoffs even though he isn't experienced there.
“He's definitely someone we will look at,” he said. “He has natural run skill. I like what he's done in his time here.”