Green Bay Packers: Time to Explore Other Punt Return Options

The Green Bay Packers special teams unit has been abysmal once again. Through nine games, this unit ranks 32nd by PFF’s metrics, 30th by Football Outsiders, and there have been a littany of issues over the course of the season.

Will things turn around? Who knows, and honestly, the smart bet is probably on no. But one move that the Green Bay Packers can try to help shake things up for the better is by exploring other punt return options.

This season that job has belonged to Amari Rodgers, but even going back to the preseason, for whatever reason, he has looked very uncomfortable back there. With the ball in his hands, there has been a hesitancy to get north and south — even when running lanes are available — which more often than no, results in a poor return.

There’s also been questionable decision-making when deciding on whether to field a punt or to let it go–and this past Sunday’s game in Kansas City, we saw how both issues can be quite costly.

On one attempt, there was hesitation with the punt being shorter than what was expected, and Rodgers chose not to field the ball, which landed at the 26-yard line. For starters, that’s a ball you need to catch–there’s a big difference between starting at the 26-yard line and the 10-yard line, especially with a young quarterback.

And if the ball was truly uncatchable for Rodgers, my question then becomes, why was he lined up so deep? Chiefs’ punter Tommy Townsend booted the ball from his own 20-yard line, and as I mentioned, it landed around the Packers’ 26. That’s a punt of 54-yards — far from a shank — yet Rodgers was lined up around his own 15-yard line. Why?

But instead, Rodgers chose to let it go, and it hit Malik Taylor, which resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Kansas City and ended with three points. Every team has a code word that the punt returner is supposed to yell that tells his teammates to get away from the ball–did Rodgers do this for Taylor?

Regardless of which issue you want to point your finger at, a costly mistake was made, and it all circles back to coaching.

Then in the second half, we saw Rodgers muff a punt that he was, fortunately, able to recover. It was at this point that Matt LaFleur told special teams coach Maurice Drayton to pull Rodgers from the game, but as LaFleur told reporters on Monday, Drayton was adamant that they stick with the rookie. And with that, credit to Rodgers for bouncing back; his next attempt, he returned for 15-yards.

However, that one return does not absolve him from the mistakes that have occurred this season. Rodgers is averaging 6.4 yards per return, and that ranks 18th out of 21 eligible returners, according to the Football Database, not to mention that there have been a number of other issues.

At this point, a simple fair catch seems like a victory for Green Bay–and for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, that’s not a good thing.

The perplexing part about Rodgers’ issues is that he had 69 career punt return attempts at Clemson–it’s not as if this is new to him. I’m sure there are nuanced differences between returning punts in college compared to the NFL level, but not so much that overnight he would become incredibly unreliable.

So as we turn our attention to the upcoming game in Seattle, will we see a change at punt returner? My guess is no, given that the Green Bay Packers didn’t make a change this past Sunday, but I imagine LaFleur has to be at his tipping point.

If Green Bay does make a change, the obvious replacement is Randall Cobb, who has 93 attempts over his career. Another name I’ll throw out there is Malik Taylor, who currently handles kick returns.

Taylor has just one career punt return attempt, but really the goal at this point for the Packers is to find someone who can field the ball cleanly and make sound decisions.

With Aaron Rodgers under center, this Green Bay Packers’ offense is one of the better units in football, and somewhat surprisingly, the defense has been playing at that level as well. But the special teams unit continues to be the weak link on this football team–and one immediate change that could make a noticeable difference is by making a change at punt returner.