Friday, July 16, 2010

Will the next Desmond Howard please stand up

The Packers of the mid-90's had a number of traits that made them a special bunch. One of them, as I discussed a few days ago, was their ability to play with an edge at Lambeau. This not only made them successful in the regular season, but it also allowed them to ride home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to two Super Bowl appearances.

Another asset was the presence of a bonafide home-run threat lining up to receive kickoffs and punts. I am, of course, talking about Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard.

Desmond only played one full season with the Packers, but his impact was felt in a big way. During the 1996 regular season, he returned 58 punts, with a ridiculous average of 15.1 yards per return. The 875 punt return yards he accrued that year still constitute the NFL's single season record, with a nice, nearly-200 yard cushion.

But with Desmond, it wasn't really about the numbers. He was truly a game-changer. Coupling his ability to shorten the field with Packers already potent offense allowed the team to score points in bunches; it's no coincidence that in '96 the Packers scored 456 points, which stood as the all-time franchise record until it was broken this past year. Of course, his field-position changing ability was only even a factor if he didn't bring the punt all the way back for a touchdown, which he did three times in the '96 regular season.

Desmond's real value was displayed in the 1996 NFL play-offs. In the Mud Bowl, he helped the Packers jump to a 14-0 lead over the 49ers after running only three offensive plays.The first time Howard touched the ball, he turned it into points, returning a punt 71 yards for a six. A few minutes later, he returned a punt 46 yards, setting up an easy, 4-yard Brett Favre to Andre Rison TD pass. From that point on, the game was never in any real jeopardy. The Packers coasted to a 35-14 victory, despite racking up 135 less yards on offense than their season average.

The crown jewel in Desmond's brief career with the Packers was his performance in Super Bowl XXXI (and no, I'm not talking about his performance of "The Robot")With the Patriots beginning to mount a comeback in the second half, Howard delivered a death blow, returning a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. New England failed to respond, and the Packers won their first Super Bowl since 1968. On that night, Howard essentially rewrote the punt and kickoff return section of the Super Bowl record book with 90 yards on punt returns, 154 on kick returns, and 244 total return yards. He rightfully won the MVP award, the only special teams player ever to do so.

Since those days, the Packers have lacked someone special returning kicks and punts, with the exception of Roell Preston in 1998 and Allen Rossum in 2000. But after those two names, things go down hill. In fact, the Packers have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2000, when the feat was last accomplished by Rossum. That's right: for nine straight seasons, the Packers have not taken a kick back to the house.

The Packers have fared better in terms of punt returning, but don't factor in last year's performance in that statement. In 2009, Jordy Nelson, the Packers' primary return man, had a putrid average of 5.3 yards per return. Out of players around the league who had returned 10 or more punts he ranked 36th. Needless to say, the Packers have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the return game.

The big question is, do the Packers have the pieces in place to make this adjustment? Do they have the next Desmond Howard on the roster? Let's take a look.

While the return game is certainly more than the guy carrying the ball, at the end of the day, he's the guy that makes it happen. Yes, it helps to have blocking assignments carried out, but if you don't have someone with the ability and the vision to do something with the football, it's all for naught. Therefore, this analysis focuses on potential return men, instead of critiquing the return unit as a whole.

When talking about candidates to return punts and kicks, Will Blackmon is the first name that needs to be mentioned, though he may slip the mind of some. It's easy to forget that Blackmon was a legitimate threat in 2008, because he suffered a nasty injury early last season and was placed on the injured reserve list. And, indeed, his 12 yard average and three touchdowns on punt returns over his career are meaningless numbers at this point in time. Blackmon, who's now finished two seasons on the IR, needs to prove that he's fully recovered from surgery on his torn ACL. There's no question that serious knee injuries have permanent consequences, no matter how effective treatment is. The question is if the lingering effects will be enough to prevent Blackmon from making the types of cuts and plants he needs to be a successful returner. If Blackmon comes back at a high level, the punt return job is his to lose. If not, he'll probably have a tough time making the team.

Jordy Nelson merits a mention in this post, by virtue of the fact that he was the primary punt and kick returned last year following Blackmon's injury. Suffice it to say that I hope Nelson does not resume his return duties. I already mentioned how horrible he was as a punt returner. Well, I don't think he's that great as a kick returner either. His numbers aren't that bad, but that's not what I'm basing my opinion on. Simply put, Jordy does not pass the eyeball test. I'm not referring to his physical make-up and complexion. I'm referring to how he appears when running with the ball in his hand. He doesn't have a lot of burst and he doesn't have a lot of shake. He's, in a word, vanilla. Yes, I'm aware that the Packers had the 12th best average field-position following a kick-off in the league last year. Even so, I feel there were a number of opportunities Nelson didn't capitalize on, simply because he doesn't have that "x-factor" great returners have. Granted, there's something to be said about guys who can simply field a kick and get to the 25 each time, but remember that Nelson also had ball security issues when returning kicks last year, including a costly fumble on against the Cardinals in the play-offs. I like the guy a lot as a player, but not as a returner.

If you're looking for a potential diamond-in-the-rough, Sam Shields may be your guy. When the Packers picked-up Shields in April, the move created quite a lot of buzz around the Packers online community, at least as much buzz as the signing of a UFA could make. A lot of it had to with this video:
Never mind that this play was called back due to a holding penalty, or that Shields didn't return kicks or punts during his days at "The U." Because when people in Wisconsin watched this video, they saw something they liked, something that was missing from the return game in 2009. Speed, and lots of it. That's what Sam Shields brings to the table: a lot of dynamic athletic ability. Special teams coach Shawn Slocum said it best:
(Shields) is a dynamic athlete. He's got difference-making speed, and if you can get the ball in his hand and get him a seam, you have a chance to score touchdowns. 
Still, possessing speed alone isn't enough to become starting kick or punt returner, let alone guarantee a spot on a 53-man roster. You need to have quite a few other skills. Step number one of any return is fielding the ball itself, which is apparently something Sam Shields does not do very well. He's definitely going to have to improve himself immensely in this area, because the coaches aren't going to stick someone back there if they've got the dropsies. He's got the athletic talent to be the Packers' returner, especially if Blackmon isn't back at full strength, but he's got a long way to go. I can see him ending up on the practice squad.

James Starks is another rookie who may have a chance to compete for return duties, at least if he has any say in the matter. Starks is an excellent athlete, who flew under most people's radar because he sat out his last year at Buffalo with a shoulder injury. But make no buts about it, the guy can play, at least Edgar Bennett seems to think so. He doesn't really have any returning experience from college (1 return for 7 yards), but it seems like he has all the tools. He's fast, demonstrates good vertical movement, and, perhaps most importantly, he has good hands. If he stays healthy, he's expected to contribute to the offense as a receiving back, so I don't see why they wouldn't at least take a look at him as a returner.

Another guy mentioned to have been taking return reps in practice is Quinn Porter, a UFA out of Division II Stillman College. While the level of competition must be scrutinized, it is worth mentioning that Porter averaged 32 yards a kick-off return during his time with the Tigers, so he definitely has some experience and some success at the position. We'll have to wait to hear more about him when training camp resumes.

Of course, the list above is by no means an exhaustive compilation of all possible returners for the Packers. It's just the ones that seem to be the leading candidates at this point in time. Will Blackmon has got to be the front-runner, assuming his knee doesn't inhibit him too much. Following the 2008 season, it looked like he had the potential to become something special. Let's hope he can get back on track because I think he's our best hope for a dynamic-return man this year. Jordy Nelson should never return a punt again in his life. However, if the Pack decide to use Blackmon exclusively as a punt-returner, as that's where he excels, I suppose I would be alright with Jordy handling the kick returning duties. He is fairly consistent, I'll give him that. As for Shields, Starks, and Poter- well, we simply need to see them in action before we can pass any kind of judgment.

After a brief assessment, it doesn't look like the Packers have anyone of Howard's caliber on the roster- but then again, how many players ever have been as good a returner as Desmond? Judging by the books, not many. The fact of the matter is that aside from drafting Blackmon back in 2006, Ted Thompson hasn't shown much interest in adding good return men. It just doesn't appear to be a priority for him. Which is a shame, because as Desmond Howard proved in 1996, having a home-run hitter lining up to field kicks and punts can go a long way. I'm not saying we need a lethal return man to win a Super Bowl...but boy would it make it easier.


  1. You know my opinion on Will Blackmon. I don't like people who aren't used to handling the ball touching the ball, ever. If they get an interception kneel it! Well just kidding about that but I don't want a cornerback catching the ball inside our own 20 with LBs and FBs barreling down the field at him. I liked Jordy returning kicks because he was consistent in his yardage and didn't fumble (until one of the later games at least). I think ball security is so much more important for an offensive as dynamic as ours and while the ability to return a kick-off for a TD is a huge momentum swing so is fumbling it inside our 20 yard line. I'd like to see someone like Jennings returning kicks or punts. Maybe not him necessarily because of the possible injury he could sustain. Although Steve Smith, Antwaan Randle El, and Laveranues Coles are all high calibre receivers who affect the return game. Starks I think could be good here, I love having running backs return because they can have the necessary quickness while not being afraid of taking the hit (Najeh Davenport baby!) while still holding onto the ball.

  2. Willa, you do realize that Blackmon is a return specialist don't you? He's as much a CB as Desmond Howard was a WR. His job is to return kicks, plain and simple.

    If I recall, Nelson fumbled at least twice. Cards and earlier in the year against Detroit, on Thanksgiving. And yes, he had good numbers, but just from what I observed, I feel like he didn't have the ability to take advantage of some opportunities.

  3. Nelson DID return a kick for TD, the same way Shields did.

    I agree with you, he's vanilla, but facts are facts. You cannot consider Shields' feat and not even mention Nelson's...

    I think we have a GREAT PR in Blackmon. He was very good at that when healthy. But we still need to find a KR.

    One guy you didn't include is Charles Dillon. One of the features that brought him from the AFL was his return ability.

    Maybe it's positive thinking, but between Dillon, Blackmon, Shields, Starks and Nelson, there's got to be a good KR, right?

  4. I suppose I mention Shields return-called-back because that's more or less all we have to go on. That's basically the only footage out there of him with a ball in his hand, so it's what a lot of people base their opinions on.

    Jordy also had a TD called back, but I think he has a bigger body of work that allowed me to disregard that non-play while still having an accurate estimation of his abilities.

    I think Blackmon could be good, really good. Due to his injury in 09, I really forgot that he had a special year in 08. Let's hope he's back to full strength and can pick up where he left off. As for KR, I'd be fine with Jordy but I hope that we can find someone who can bring it out to 25 consistently AND occasionally bust a big one.