Packers considering a change at punt returner after another Amari Rodgers muff
GREEN BAY − There were 4 yards between him and the nearest Washington Commanders defender when the punt arrived. An open pasture for some return specialists.
For Amari Rodgers, given the first year and a half of his career, the play would have almost automatically yielded a fair catch.
Except Rodgers has decided to turn over a new leaf. A more aggressive approach. A couple of weeks ago, he said, the second-year receiver decided to drastically reduce how often he fair catches punts. Those hidden yards he leaves on the field, the yards new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has beseeched Rodgers to take since the start of training camp, have become too important to ignore.
The problem for Rodgers is more returns means more opportunities to muff a punt. It’s not a problem prohibiting many NFL return specialists from getting what they can after fielding the football – they’re paid to return punts and kicks for a living – but Rodgers has a history of unreliability. He muffed a punt against the New York Giants three weeks ago, and though Packers linebacker Isaiah McDuffie recovered that fumble, it was a sign of more issues to come.
So when Rodgers muffed another punt in the first quarter of the Packers’ 23-21 loss to the Commanders on Sunday, the mistake hardly surprised anyone who’s tracked his career.
“I was just trying to make a play," he said. "I’ve been telling them that I’m not trying to fair catch, because I’ve been doing that too much lately. So I just try to not fair catch. They got up on me, and it just slipped through my hands, but it happens. It’s an imperfect game.
“I tried to run before I had it. Because I felt them on me. I tried to catch it and get off the spot, but you have to catch it first.”
Rodgers said his muff against the Commanders was similar to his muff against the Giants. On both plays, his mind moved quicker than his hands, and he tried to run before possessing the football.
His fumble Sunday hurt much more than the first. The Commanders recovered at the Packers’ 17-yard line. They scored their first points on a 22-yard field goal six plays later.
In a 2-point loss, those 3 points made the difference.
Rodgers’ inconsistency fielding punts is nothing new. He has muffed three punts in less than a season and a half, and though the Packers recovered the first two, trotting out a punt returner with unreliable hands is a dangerous way to live in the NFL. Coach Matt LaFleur said the punt-return job is being “evaluated” this week.
“We’re talking about it,” LaFleur said, “in terms of what we want to do in that regard. Certainly, I think we do have a lot of confidence in Amari and his ability to field the ball, but you can’t put the ball on the ground. He knows that, and he feels awful about it. But it is what it is, and we’ve got to get better. No doubt about it.”
The Packers already limited Rodgers’ role in their special teams a couple of weeks ago. Rodgers opened the season as their primary kick returner, a job he held as a rookie last year. Rookie receiver Christian Watson overtook that job against the Giants, dropping back for the opening kickoff. Rodgers regained the job after Watson left that game with a hamstring injury, but Keisean Nixon has handled kickoff returns the past two weeks.
Bisaccia has been more reluctant to replace Rodgers as punt returner. He continued to drop deep to field punts after Sunday’s muff. Rodgers showed he wanted no part of fielding his next punt return after the muff, running away from the football despite the punt landing outside the 10-yard line.
The Commanders were able to down it at the 1 with less than 50 seconds left in the first half.
There’s good reason the Packers haven’t changed their punt returner yet. Behind Rodgers, they have a dearth of options. Receiver Romeo Doubs repped as a punt returner in training camp, but the rookie has become a vital part of a Packers offense that needs all the playmaking potential it can get. Randall Cobb isn’t available as he recovers from a sprained ankle. Nixon has only been a kickoff returner in the NFL.
Samori Toure, a rookie receiver who was active Sunday for the first time all season, might be next in line. He has limited experience as a punt returner, fielding just two for 9 yards as a senior at Nebraska last season after transferring from Montana.
Without ruling out a change at punt returner, LaFleur continued to pump Rodgers’ confidence Monday. “I think the confidence comes from the practice,” LaFleur said, “and what we see on a daily basis. If you guys were out there for our special-teams periods, much like throughout training camp, those are as live as it gets now. Those guys are going hard. But, yeah, we’re going to definitely take a look at that.”