With one big punt return, Jason Chery has gone from a long-shot to having a real shot at making the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster.
Chery opened the door a crack when he begged his way into a late fourth-quarter punt return against Indianapolis last week and took it back for a 75-yard touchdown.
The door has been flung wide open because of Will Blackmon’s continued problems with his reconstructed knee. Without much in the return game behind Blackmon, the Packers are desperate for an alternative. Chery’s touchdown intrigued coach Mike McCarthy enough to give him all the kickoff and punt returns in the Packers’ preseason finale Thursday night at Kansas City.
“We’re going to give him a chance,” McCarthy said Monday. “You can’t not be excited about his punt return in the Indianapolis game. The young man hasn’t been given a whole lot of opportunity in the game, so we’re going to find out.”
When the Packers signed Chery on Aug. 5 after placing receiver Jeff Moturi on injured reserve, it looked every bit a camp-roster move only. The receiver had been out of football since mid-June, when the Pittsburgh Steelers waived him, and his resume consisted of a few weeks on the practice squads of Carolina and Pittsburgh last season.
But Chery had a quality that got the Packers’ attention in a personal workout: a 40-yard dash they timed in a range from 4.29 seconds to 4.32 seconds. They thought the first-year pro out of Louisiana-Lafayette might have some potential as a special-teams player.
Chery didn’t get any practice in the return game until last week, when the Packers began exploring backup options more seriously because of Blackmon’s balky left knee. Blackmon has practiced only sporadically in camp because of recurring soreness in his knee — he was on a one-a-day schedule because he was coming off major knee surgery, but after pulling out of practice on Aug. 5 he missed almost two full weeks. Blackmon came back to return one punt against Seattle on Aug. 21, and after returning three punts last week against Indianapolis has been unable to practice because of pain in his knee.
Blackmon’s periodic flare-ups could make it difficult for the Packers to count on him when they make final cuts this weekend, and might mean he’ll need another knee surgery or land on injured reserve.
“It’s a serious injury when it occurred up there in Minnesota (last season),” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if there’s any more he could do from a rehab standpoint. He came back in great shape, but it’s a major knee surgery and that first year is always difficult and brings on other problems. He’s just going through a bad spot right now.”
The Packers’ next-best returner is cornerback Tramon Williams, but he’s an unattractive option now because it would add significant injury risk to a key starter. Receiver Jordy Nelson probably is next in line but wasn’t much of a threat last season while handling most of the returning after Blackmon blew out his knee.
Then there’s Chery, an undrafted rookie from 2009 who as a senior at Louisiana-Lafayette averaged 21.7 yards a kickoff return, including a 97-yard touchdown. He had only two punt returns for 16 yards in his college career.
Chery showed his pure speed on his 75-yard touchdown return against Indianapolis, and the Packers’ decision to give him all the returns Thursday night suggests they’re ready to make room for him on the final 53 if he performs well.
“(The coaches) told me I don’t really have to do much, just go out and play,” Chery said. “If I take one back, great. If I don’t, then just showing I can learn how to do the directional (returning) — there’s a direction they want me to run. If I can just do that, that’s shows them I’m teachable instead of just running wild. On Thursday I just have to go out and play, play fast, and let everything loose. Leave it all out there.”
That Chery even got the chance last week was solely because of his hard lobbying of special teams coach Shawn Slocum on the sidelines. With the Colts facing third down and a little more than five minutes left in the game, Chery went to Slocum asking for his chance in case they punted. He then lobbied another assistant, and Slocum gave in.
“By the time I finally went out there,” Chery said, “everybody was on me, the whole team was rooting for me, ‘Catch the ball, make sure you catch the ball,’ ‘Be calm,’ this and that. I was like, this is like college all over. The more they were telling me, the more a regular kid, he’ll get nervous.
“So I’m back there, I’m already nervous, my adrenaline is pumping, my eyes are red because I’m emotional — ‘Finally, my time.’ Then I said, ‘OK, catch the ball.’ So I caught the ball, and then I was, ‘OK, what am I going to do? So I caught the ball and made one move, because coach said, ‘Make one move and hit it.’ I did exactly what they told me to do, and I hit it.”