Kennard Backman gets final audition Thursday
Rookie hopes to continue momentum after scoring first touchdown against Eagles
His No. 86 was announced over Lambeau Field's speakers, and Kennard Backman knew he was in trouble.
The Green Bay Packers' rookie tight end had just been called for a holding penalty. It was the second straight game he forced an official to drop a yellow flag. This is not how a player on the roster bubble earns a job, and Backman knew it.
"I needed to do something to kind of make up for what I did," Backman said.
He didn't hesitate. Two plays later, the Packers were backed up with a second-and-19 thanks to Backman's penalty. Quarterback Brett Hundley found his tight end in the middle of the field, giving him a chance to make a play.
When he caught the pass, Backman simultaneously took a shot to the ribs from Philadelphia Eagles safety Ed Reynolds. He held on for a 15-yard reception, reviving a drive that ended five plays later when Hundley and Backman connected for a 4-yard touchdown.
The rookie's first Lambeau Leap was forgettable — "He leaped so high that he could've tripped over a nickel," tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said — but those two catches were a significant confidence boost.
The first, Backman said, was especially important because it came after a penalty. Mistakes are natural for a rookie. He's been working on how to move past them.
"When there's a call against you and your name comes over the speaker for something bad," Backman said, "you know why you messed up. You know what you should've done better. You know what you could've done better. But you've got to get to the next play. You've got to get the next signal, the next call in, so you don't mess up again."
Backman wants to continue his momentum when the Packers host the New Orleans Saints in their preseason finale at 6 p.m. Thursday at Lambeau Field.
By this point, most of the spots on the Packers' 53-man roster are locked in, but jobs can be won in the final preseason game. Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott and receiver Jeff Janis were among the "bubble" players who got over the hump in last year's preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs.
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There's more uncertainty with Packers tight ends than most years. Behind Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless, spots are up for grabs. General manager Ted Thompson traditionally prefers to keep four tight ends on the roster, but it may be more likely for the Packers to keep an extra fullback this season.
The trio of Backman, Justin Perillo and Mitchell Henry could be competing for one open job. On Thursday night, they'll get their last audition.
"I think it's huge for all three of those guys that are not Drew or Richard," Fontenot said of Thursday night. "It's vital for them to be able to go out and maximize their opportunities because, yeah, anything can happen on that last Thursday night game. Hopefully, we'll see a truly, truly good battle between those three guys."
Perillo seemed to have an edge early in camp after finishing last season on the active roster. He had two catches for 23 yards in the preseason opener at New England, but a concussion in that game knocked him out of two weeks of camp. Perillo was unable to play in Pittsburgh — where Backman caught two passes for 15 yards — and was held without a catch against Philadelphia.
With a big night Thursday, Perillo still could earn another spot on the active roster. But he has ground to make up. His time away from the field was costly.
"We weren't able to evaluate him for a couple weeks," Fontenot said. "It's a factor. How much of a factor at the end of the day? I probably won't know until the end of the day, but it's certainly a factor."
Backman, who played college football at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, appears to be catching momentum at the right time. While he's drawn two penalties in three games, he's also caught six passes for 44 yards.
The Packers like the 6-foot-3, 258-pound tight end's athleticism. He was a high school basketball star, sharing an athletic history with some of the NFL's premier tight ends. The challenge, Backman said, has been finding consistency. Understandably, the transition from Conference USA to the NFC North has been daunting.
Early in camp, Backman said, he was making simple mistakes. His mind raced to catch up to the speed of the game. He constantly asked questions, trying to learn the finer details of being a professional tight end. Fontenot said he appreciated Backman's eagerness to improve, but corrections weren't always made swiftly enough.
"Sometimes we'll repeat a mistake once or twice," Fontenot said, "and we generally like to see those things get nipped in the bud immediately and not have a repeat mistake. He's had a few. Not to say that there aren't other guys in the room that have done the same thing. That's one area that I would like to really see some more progress."
The biggest adjustment, Backman said, is reading much more complex NFL defenses. Safeties "give away" their secrets each snap, he said. They're the key to everything he does in the passing game, just like college.
The difference now, Backman said, is a route can be scrapped based off a safety's reaction. An NFL tight end must be well versed in improvisation.
"You would make the adjustment in how you were running (in college)," Backman said, "but your route wouldn't completely change."
It's a difficult transition for a player accustomed to beating bland coverages. Backman feels the learning curve getting smoother now, he said. There's more comfort with the playbook.
It's showing on the field.
Backman still shakes his head at that underwhelming Lambeau Leap from Saturday. This time of year, he jokes, every chance to flash an impressive vertical jump is important. Yes, coaches and teammates let him hear it.
He wants another chance to leap into the stands. Not just to redeem his touchdown celebration. Backman knows consistency is the only way he'll earn a roster spot.
"Those are daily thoughts," Backman said. "What can you do? At night, you always think, 'What can I do better next day?' Or reflect on your day. 'How did I do this day? What can I do next day?' I think if you do that every day, then when stuff like this comes up, it's just another day. It's just another thing you've got to do, you know.
"Assess your day, think about it. Think about what you can do better next day."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood