The Green Bay Packers' Tramon Williams returns a punt Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy is taking a huge risk every time he sends Tramon Williams on the field to return punts.
The Packers recently gave Williams a lucrative new contract that will pay him more than $8 million per season because he is a superb cornerback, not for his punt-return abilities.
It flies in the face of common sense to put a Pro Bowl-caliber defender like Williams in harmís way on special teams. If anything happens to Williams, the Packersí defense would take a major hit.
When asked recently if he would consider re-evaluating his use of Williams on punt returns, McCarthy gave no indication he was willing to budge on the issue.
ďThatís really a roster structure question that I think Iíve answered back in training camp,Ē said McCarthy. ďIím not going to change now.Ē
It would be one thing if Williams was a game-breaker, but his 7.7-yard average ranks 27th in the NFL among players with at least 10 punt returns this season.
The reward for Williamsí return skills isnít worth the risk. He has emerged as a top-flight cornerback and is too valuable to lose to a needless injury.
ďI understand the risk involved,Ē said McCarthy.
Thatís easy to say as long as Williams stays healthy. But if something were to happen to Williams, McCarthy would have some explaining to do.
Williams isnít the only key NFL starter that serves as a return man, but just because other teams are willing to roll the dice doesnít make it right.
The list of starters who also return kickoffs or punts includes DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia, Percy Harvin in Minnesota, Eddie Royal in Denver, Danny Amendola in St. Louis and Devin Hester in Chicago. Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys also performed double duty until he broke his ankle last week returning a kickoff.
Itís telling that among that group of returners, Williams is the only one that plays defense. More often than not defensive players are used as stopgap returners and not for their dazzling play-making ability.
Williams is generally sure-handed and has one career touchdown return in 2007, although it came on a punt out of field-goal formation, meaning he didnít do it against a punt coverage unit.
McCarthyís dilemma is that he has few other options. Greg Jennings is listed as the top backup on the Packersí depth chart, but risking an injury to the teamís best receiver is a crazy notion. No. 4 receiver Jordy Nelson is another possibility but heís more of a straight-line runner and has been prone to fumble.
The Packersí biggest problem is that in General Manager Ted Thompsonís six years on the job he has been unable to produce a true return specialist. Former Packers GM Ron Wolf made that a priority in the mid-1990s with Super Bowl XXXI MVP Desmond Howard, and later with the very capable Roell Preston and Allen Rossum.
Will Blackmon was the closest the Packers came to having a full-fledged returner under Thompson, but he couldnít stay healthy.
So once again that has put the onus on McCarthy to scour his roster for someone capable of return duty. At best, itís an adequate approach. At worst, a very valuable Packersí starter could get hurt.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.