Packers' patience with Amari Rodgers wearing thin: 'We just can’t put it on the ground much more'
GREEN BAY − No one inside Lambeau Field is pleased with the possible demotion awaiting Amari Rodgers this week.
General manager Brian Gutekunst spent a third-round pick on Rodgers last year. A third-round pick is a potential NFL starter. Gutekunst hasn’t found a third-round starter in five draft classes.
Rodgers’ only real contribution to the Packers roster through the first 26 games of his career has been as a punt returner. Without that, he becomes another third-round miss.
Matt LaFleur was tabbed to develop Rodgers as a receiver. It’s LaFleur’s offense. His playbook. Rich Bisaccia’s job, in part, was to instill confidence in Rodgers as a punt returner. The special teams coordinator, in his first year in Green Bay, has spoken more than once this season about his belief in the 2020 first team all-ACC selection out of Clemson.
The Packers have every reason to hope Rodgers finally blossoms as a punt returner, at minimum. After another fumbled punt Sunday in the Packers’ 31-28 overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys, Rodgers’ fourth fumble this season, the team’s window for patience might be closed.
“I really like Amari Rodgers,” Bisaccia said. “Jersey No. 8 has put himself, and put us, in some bad situations. You have to coach the man first, and then coach the player. So we have to go through both of those things when these situations arise.”
The situation likely is a new punt returner Thursday night when the Packers host the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. The Packers already made a change Sunday, inserting kick returner Keisean Nixon deep to return a pair of punts after Rodgers’ latest fumble.
Midway through the third quarter, Rodgers gained 11 yards on a return that would have given the Packers possession at their own 44-yard line, but he fumbled while being tackled. The Cowboys recovered and scored a touchdown four plays later, breaking a tie at 14.
It might have been Rodgers’ last punt return, barring injury.
“We’ve got to go through and evaluate the situation,” LaFleur said Sunday night. “It sucks for Amari. I feel for him, obviously, because he’s a guy who works his butt off on a daily basis. I know he wants to go out there and excel, and that was a tough break. Obviously, it was a critical turnover that we can’t have. That’s something we talk about all the time. Obviously, the ball is everything. When you have it in your hands, you hold it for everybody in this organization.
“We can’t put it on the ground, especially when we‘re in a situation in a tight ballgame, going to get the ball at midfield. Thought he had a decent return, and he coughed it up. We can’t do that.”
LaFleur wouldn’t indicate Monday afternoon how his evaluation of the punt returner position would go, saying only that it will be revealed Thursday night.
On Sunday, LaFleur said there is belief Rodgers will catch punts cleanly. It just hasn’t happened for most of his career. Rodgers has fumbled three punts this season, including a muff against Washington that led to a field goal for the Commanders in what became a 2-point Packers loss. If not for the Packers comeback win Sunday, Rodgers’ fumbled punt would have led to a loss for the second time in four games.
“The reason for the change,” Bisaccia said, “was kind of a critical situation where we put the ball on the ground, changed momentum of the game, and I just thought it was time to put Keisean in a situation where he could hopefully do something to help us win it and take a little bit off of that from Amari for the rest of the game. So we’re evaluating as we go through here. It’s a short week, obviously. But that’s kind of what transpired to get Keisean back there in the game.”
Nixon replaced Rodgers as the Packers kickoff returner five weeks ago against the New York Jets. In four NFL seasons – each of them with Bisaccia – he had never fielded a punt before Sunday.
His introduction wasn’t exactly a natural fit. On his first, Nixon fielded the football at the 5-yard line, lifting his hands above his head to catch it like a pass. He was able to field the football though, returning it 6 yards. Bisaccia said he was more concerned about Nixon fielding the punt near the goal line, instead of letting it bounce into the end zone for a touchback, than how he caught it.
Nixon’s next punt return was for 13 yards.
“Making a decision to put him back there,” Bisaccia said, “I felt like we’d get the ball caught. He hadn’t been in a situation where he’s had to make decisions in a critical game like that, so that was a little bit more of a concern. We had some conversations on the sideline about that. The high-point (catch) is unusual to some degree, but I think the ball came out that way.
“If you remember the first one early, it hit off of Amari and that kind of got down in that wind a little bit and took a bad drop on him. So it was tough down in that end zone a little bit as well.”
Nixon isn’t the Packers' only option at punt returner. Rookie receiver Samori Toure had minimal college experience fielding punts, but he’s taken reps in practice throughout this season. It’s possible veteran Randall Cobb might be activated off injured reserve before Thursday night. Cobb, who fielded 57 punts in his first two seasons, might be the most reliable option.
That’s mostly what the Packers are searching for in a punt returner at this point. More than explosive gains, they simply need someone who can consistently catch the football.
Said Bisaccia: “We just can’t put it on the ground much more.”