Kuhn remains Packers' 'ace in the hole'
Sam Gash didn't know what he was hearing at first.
As John Kuhn jogged onto Lambeau Field early this season, the chant began to echo with each step the Green Bay Packers' fullback took toward the huddle.
"It tripped me out," said Gash, the Packers' first-year running backs coach. "I thought they were booing."
Nope, this is Lambeau Field's bat signal. An unrelenting ode to a player who's survived at the NFL's most endangered position, a phrase popular enough to sell jerseys with "KUUUUUUUUHHHHHNNNNN" on the name plate.
For nearly 10 years, the former Shippensburg standout has been the Packers' "ace in the hole," as left tackle David Bakhtiari puts it. He's not on the field every play. Actually, it's been less than one in five this season, but his presence still serves a purpose.
He's a blocker. He's personal protector on punts. He's an occasional decoy when splitting out wide with Randall Cobb in the backfield. For a little more than $1 million, Kuhn is whatever the Packers need him to be at any given moment.
"He's been available all year," said Gash, a former two-time Pro Bowl fullback. "Coach (Mike McCarthy) does a great job of getting him in there to play. It's just the way the games go a lot of times. When he's asked to play, he plays as hard as he can and as best as he can."
The job isn't glamorous, but it's still important. Last December, Kuhn was all that stood between Julius Peppers and Aaron Rodgers. He chipped the eight-time Pro Bowler just enough to give Rodgers the time to hit Cobb for the game-winning touchdown in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC North.
The cameras zoomed in on the quarterback and the receiver. The only reason you even seen Kuhn on the TV copy is because he ran 55 yards downfield to be the first to greet Cobb in the end zone.
There was some question whether that would be his final act in Green Bay. The free-agent market for an NFL fullback is drastically different than when he signed his three-year, $7.5 million deal in 2011. It's tough to find work, especially when you turned 32 during the first week of the 2014 season.
The Packers waited nearly a month before bringing Kuhn back on a one-year, $1 million deal that included a $100,000 signing bonus, and his role changed along with the paycheck.
The Packers wanted to use offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy and veteran James Starks as three-down running backs in their no-huddle offense. So Kuhn's job was to be an occasional lead blocker in two-back formations.
"With the emergence of Eddie last year and James coming back, I knew that was going to be my job," Kuhn said. "We did a really good job this year in defining roles. With that being a true defined role and really being able to focus on that and only that, I really feel it's helped me out."
Kuhn played only 56 offensive snaps in the first eight games with the Packers running frequently in their zebra personnel package of three receivers, a tight end and running back. However, his workload has doubled since the bye week.
In Sunday's 20-3 win over Tampa Bay, Kuhn played a season-high 26 snaps on offense and received four carries for 22 yards. He also credits Gash for rounding out his game with a tidbit of advice here and there.
In most instances, his job is to clear a hole for Lacy or Starks. That wasn't always a strength of his game, but coaches have noticed him being more impactful in his blocking this year.
"I think he's probably having one of his best or his best years as a lead blocker," McCarthy said. "I know that was an emphasis for John in the offseason, and he's definitely delivered there. So probably doesn't play (enough), he's probably not used enough but it's understandable, but I think he does what he's always done, he takes advantage of all his opportunities."
The fullback remains a position in flux. According to Football Outsiders, only three players who are identified as fullbacks by their teams have played more than 30 percent of their offense's snaps this season (Baltimore's Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco's Bruce Miller and Oakland's Marcel Reece).
Kuhn's 169 snaps on offense are in the middle of the road for NFL fullbacks, but his ability to perfect the little things is what's earned him respect. Earlier this week, he was voted to his second Pro Bowl, an honor Rodgers actively supported before and after the announcement.
Inside the locker room, his teammates appreciate the dimension Kuhn adds to the offense, whether it's knowledge of the system he's been immersed in since 2007 or simply putting his head down and opening a gap.
"He had some big runs for us down in Tampa and is doing a great job blocking," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "The more we can mix it up and especially grind out the end of games in the fourth quarter and the four-minute stuff, its big for us, so it's great to have him and the production that he has. It allows us to mix things up and they can't just key on him as a blocker."
Kuhn played only two snaps in the Packers' 19-7 loss to Detroit in Week 3, but could be in for a heavier workload during Sunday's NFC North showdown with the Lions. After all, December football is built for backs, and Kuhn has played at least 15 snaps on offense in five of the Packers' seven games since the bye week.
The longest-tenured offensive player outside of Rodgers, Kuhn again will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He and other veteran fullbacks will try to carry the torch for a position dwindling in numbers.
Those conversations can wait. Right now, it's about Detroit. It's about securing a first-round bye and winning a fourth consecutive NFC North title. The offense struck out the first time, but believe it has what it takes to extend the Packers' winning streak over the Lions to 24 in the state of Wisconsin.
If it happens with Kuhn on the field, you can bet the Lambeau Field crowd is going to make its voice heard, much like when the fullback was the top vote-getter in the fan balloting.
"It's something notable that every guy strives for in this league," said Kuhn of his Pro Bowl selection. "But again, hopefully we have some more football left here and we're looking forward to making a good playoff run and a good push. But it was a heck of an honor and I'm truly proud of it."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod