Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, center, makes a first down catch between Detroit Lions Eric Wright, left, and Chris Harris during the third quarter of the game at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette
They say it all the time in coaching, regardless of sport: You get what you emphasize.
That’s why coach Mike McCarthy made the surprising decision last February to move Edgar Bennett from coaching the Green Bay Packers’ running backs to coaching receivers.
Surprising because McCarthy was replacing a highly respected receivers coach in Jimmy Robinson, who played receiver and coached the position his entire NFL career, with someone who played and coached only running back in the NFL.
Robinson was as expert a receivers coach as you’ll find. But Bennett pushed hard for the move and convinced McCarthy in part because of his expertise for any ball-handling position: ball security.
You get what you emphasize, and Bennett above all else emphasizes protecting the football. He did it as running backs coach from 2005 to 2010 and on the day after a game he often seemed inconsolable in interviews if one of his backs had lost the ball. That same attention to detail is showing at his new position and is among the reasons the Packers rank No. 2 in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-16.
Quarterback Aaron Rogers’ ball security figures most prominently in that rating — he’s thrown only four interceptions and has but two fumbles, both of which the Packers recovered. But it’s also noteworthy that the Packers’ receivers have only one of the team’s 11 fumbles overall and none of the five fumbles lost.
There no doubt are some subtle details about playing NFL receiver that Robinson knows and Bennett doesn’t, and it wasn’t like fumbling was a back-breaking problem at the position under Robinson. But the results this year strongly suggest Bennett’s preaching and practicing ball security above all else is influencing his receiving corps.
“By far the No. 1 rule is ball security after the catch,” Bennett said recently. “Yes we want YAC, yards after the catch, but we want to protect the football most importantly.”
Last year in the regular season, the Packers’ receivers fumbled six times after receptions: three by James Jones (one lost), two by Greg Jennings (none lost) and one by Jordy Nelson (lost). Nelson had two other fumbles on kickoff returns.
This year, Jones has the lone fumble, against Minnesota on Nov. 14 when he tried to use a stiff arm to pick up extra yardage. That fumble went out of bounds, so the Packers kept possession. Rookie receiver Randall Cobb has three fumbles, all on returns. One was a kickoff return against Carolina, the other two were muffed punt catches against Minnesota.
So that’s six fumbles in 16 games in 2010, compared to one in 11 games this year. Including the kickoff returns, when Nelson and Cobb had full possession of the ball, but not including the muffed catches on punt returns, when the ball was never secured, the count is eight fumbles by receivers in 2010, compared to two through 11 games this year.
When the Packers play the Giants on Sunday, take note of the Packers’ receivers after the catch. Watch how tightly they hold the ball to their bodies, and if there’s traffic, how they cover it with two arms. That’s from habit ingrained in practice, drilled every day.
To be sure, the Packers aren’t the only NFL team that takes good care of the ball. Six teams have fewer than the Packers’ five lost fumbles, and eight have fewer than their 11 fumbles total. New Orleans has a league-low four fumbles (three lost).
It’s also safe to assume every team in the NFL practices and talks ball security. This is nothing new. Mike Holmgren and Mike Sherman did so when they coached the Packers.
In fact, Holmgren helped mold Bennett into the ball-security fanatic he is today by benching him twice as a rookie for fumbling. The first was after Bennett fumbled on his second carry against Detroit in Week 4 — in the next two games, Bennett had no carries or receptions, and his lone touches were two kickoff returns. Injuries then forced Bennett into the starting lineup for Week 12 against Chicago, but on a day when he broke through for 107 yards rushing, he also fumbled. He started again the following week, again because of injuries, but then Darrell Thompson returned the following week, and Bennett had only six carries total in the final four games.
Lesson learned. He had only one fumble in 474 touches over the next two years.
“Kind of laid the foundation for ball security,” Bennett said. “Basically it equates to wins and losses in the National Football League, so I learned first hand what not to do, putting it on the ground.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.