After asking for weeks, Keisean Nixon thankful Packers finally let him return punts
GREEN BAY – For weeks, Keisean Nixon arrived at Lambeau Field asking the same question. He was like you, watching the futility of this Green Bay Packers punt return unit, except for one key difference.
Nixon knew he could do something about it.
He’d been returning kickoffs for a month. Even his introduction in that phase of the Packers special teams was startlingly delayed. Overnight, Nixon sparked a lifeless return unit with his exhilarating speed and reckless abandon. The first time Nixon got a chance to return a kickoff in Week 6, he fielded the football 2 yards deep in the end zone, sliced past a couple of New York Jets tacklers and carried it to the 30.
The kickoff job was his as soon as he got it, but the Packers clung to Amari Rodgers as their punt returner. As Rodgers bumbled and muffed his way through 10 weeks, Nixon kept asking to get reps returning punts in practice. The answer was always the same.
Through 10 weeks, Nixon said he didn’t get a single practice rep.
“I asked them,” he shrugged.
Coach Matt LaFleur showed no inclination of changing his mind when the Dallas Cowboys arrived at Lambeau Field in November. Rodgers dropped back to field the game’s first three punts. When he fumbled the third, allowing the Cowboys to score a short-field touchdown in just four plays, LaFleur finally relented.
Without a single practice rep, Nixon got the job. Rodgers was released three days later. Nixon has been their punt returner since.
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“I always knew I could do it,” Nixon said. “I’m an athlete. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. There’s certain stuff that you don’t lose as a kid. You still know how to ride a bike. (For me), play football at the highest level. I’ve been doing it my entire life, so it’s just natural. Everything, hand-eye coordination, all that stuff is what I’ve always had.
“It’s just the opportunity. They gave me an opp. It’s time to take care of it.”
It’s been a season of retroactive personnel changes on the field. The Packers were slow to move Yosh Nijman to right tackle. They were slower to replace Darnell Savage at safety with Rudy Ford. No change was more overdue than giving Nixon a chance to return punts.
In six returns the past five games, Nixon is averaging 15.3 yards. He averaged 18 yards on a pair of punt returns Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, electrifying the Packers sideline. Nixon’s 15.3-yard average ranks second in the NFL, behind only Atlanta’s Avery Williams (16.2-yard average in 18 returns).
Rodgers, when he didn’t fumble, averaged 7 yards on 20 returns. That ranked 18th.
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Yes, LaFleur knows Nixon’s immediate success begs the question why he didn’t get a chance to return punts sooner.
“It’s unfortunate, I know that I’m probably going to get criticized for not playing him early,” LaFleur said, “and that’s fair. We should’ve had him in there earlier, and we didn’t. I don’t think we knew what we had.”
The Packers couldn’t have known Nixon was capable when they signed him this offseason. In three years with the Las Vegas Raiders, he never returned a punt. Rich Bisaccia, the Packers first-year special teams coordinator, held the same job during Nixon’s entire time with the Raiders. Even after Bisaccia was promoted as the Raiders’ interim head coach late last season, he never put Nixon on the field for a punt return.
Nixon’s first attempt against the Cowboys showed why. He waited for the punt at the Packers’ 15-yard line, but the football sailed over his head. Nixon backpedaled all the way to the 6-yard line instead of letting the football bounce into the end zone for a touchback, breaking the first rule of punt returning.
If the punt is going to land inside the 10-yard line, returners are coached to let it drop.
When Nixon fielded the punt anyway, he raised both hands over his head to catch it. Like a receiver snags a high pass from the quarterback. It was a moment that showed Nixon didn’t really know the nuances of the position, no surprise since he hadn’t practiced it, but magic started happening as soon as he had the football. In what was the most exciting punt return to that point this season, Nixon made an unblocked Cowboys gunner miss a tackle, picking up 5 yards.
His next return gained 13 yards. Nixon hasn't slowed down since.
"Kick return is more natural for me," said Nixon, who ranks third in the NFL with a 25.4-yard average on 28 returns. "I can just do what I do. Punt return, I had to actually sit and watch film, and understand I can't just hit it fast every time. I've got to wait for blocks and set it up. That's why I let the ball drop and then go get the ball instead of fair catching sometimes.
"I don't think Rich likes that sometimes, but it'll be all right."
The unorthodoxy Nixon shows as a punt returner is still noticeable. He is raw. "Fearless," LaFleur calls him. Nixon has made a habit of fielding punts on a bounce, daring in situations when more experienced punt returners show caution.
Those heart-stopping moments are why the Packers waited to insert Nixon as their punt returner. Few positions on the field can flip a game with a mistake quicker.
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So far, Nixon’s blind aggressiveness hasn’t cost the Packers.
“It was more or less a situation of he hadn’t done it a whole lot in the past,” LaFleur said, “and you want to feel comfortable that he’s going to go in the game and do the right things. Obviously, you can see he’s got a very aggressive mindset, which for the most part is really, really good. And there’s some times when you kind of hold your breath.
“He’s just got a great mentality, and I love how he competes. He’s a guy who really goes for it, and he’s got no fear of failure, which I totally respect. I think it’s done well for us.”
The Packers haven’t returned a punt for touchdown since 2014, when Micah Hyde took a pair to the end zone. They haven’t had a kickoff return touchdown since 2011. Nixon might be the specialist to end that drought. There are other ways for him to find the goal line, though.
Since taking the punt return job, Nixon has started asking his head coach a new question when he arrives at Lambeau Field each day. The slot cornerback who has played 282 snaps this season wants to try the other side of the line of scrimmage. Maybe a slot receiver.
“He’s been talking to me every day about that,” LaFleur said, smiling.
Maybe it’s an idea worth exploring.