Long returns by-product of coaching, anticipation
For some, it’s finding a dollar bill on the ground or scratching off a winning lottery ticket.
But there’s more to luck when it comes to sports.
In fact, it’s been said by many players and coaches that luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
That describes exactly what happened to the Green Bay Packers on one of the biggest plays in Sunday’s 28-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
It may have appeared to be a lucky moment for the Packers when special teams player Tramon Williams scooped up John Kasay’s pooch punt at his 6-yard line and raced 94 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a 7-0 lead.
But there was so much more to that play than a speedy athlete grabbing a football and running for his life.
Just ask Williams.
“We kinda knew it was going to be a pooch kick,” Williams said of the play that came with 8:16 to go in the opening quarter.
The Panthers had moved the ball to the Green Bay 34-yard line, but the Packers weren’t convinced that Carolina coach John Fox really wanted Kasay to attempt a 52-yard field goal, especially the way the November winds were swirling around Lambeau Field.
Packer special teams coach Mike Stock had noted that the Panthers had tried the pooch kick once before this season and had prepared his kick team for it.
The Packers didn’t tip their hand, but Williams immediately raced back when the direct snap from Carolina’s Jason Kyle went to Kasay.
The Panthers’ place-kicker tried to drop the ball inside the Packers’ 10-yard line, but Williams was able to grab the football cleanly.
Defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, hustling back on the play, delivered a crushing block on Carolina’s Justin Hartwig, springing Williams to the left side of the field.
Jolly seemed to injure his shoulder on the jarring hit. He appeared in just one more series after the play, before retiring for the day.
The block sent Williams on his way.
“I was on the other hash (mark) when he kicked it,” Williams said. “I saw the blocks coming. It wasn’t like a regular punt play. They had their linemen out there. They were moving slower. I saw that I had room to run. I just felt like I shouldn’t get caught.”
Williams, a second-year player out of Louisiana Tech, also got a second pivotal block from Jarrett Bush.
From there, it was a matter of staying ahead of the desperate Panthers, strutting like Deion Sanders for the last 15 or 20 yards and then celebrating his first NFL touchdown with an obligatory Lambeau Leap.
Did Williams make a mistake by picking up the ball inside his 10-yard line?
Not necessarily, especially with Stock’s preparation.
“We worked on that in practice,” Williams said. “They’ve got all their slow guys on the field. We prepared for it.”
In fact, once Williams broke into the clear, he had just one thought: “Don’t get caught by no big guys,” he said.
Williams’ return tied the record for the second longest in team history. Steve Odom holds the Green Bay record with a 95-yard punt return against the Chicago Bears in 1974.
Williams’ spectacular scamper was the first of two game-turning plays by the Packers’ special teams.
The second came on the opening kickoff of the second half.
Green Bay’s Koren Robinson fielded the ball at his 5-yard line, and then broke his left toward the designated direction for the return.
But the play broke down at about the 20-yard line, forcing Robinson to improvise.
“I slipped to my left and saw there was room,” Robinson said.
He managed to return the ball 67 yards to the Carolina 28-yard line.
Four plays later, Brett Favre fired a 12-yard TD pass to Donald Lee to give Green Bay a 28-3 lead and all but put an end to the competitive portion of Sunday’s game.
“It feels good to contribute to this team,” said Robinson, whose return to the Packers after a one-year NFL suspension has been well documented. “I want to continue to make plays as the weeks go in.”
The long runs by Williams and Robinson spiced up the afternoon. Those plays also demonstrated the importance of special teams.
“Plays like those let you know just how special the special teams are,” Robinson said. “You have to win the special teams to get the edge on your opponent.”
And there’s nothing lucky about it.