In the grand scheme of the game, it might not have been the significant difference between a win and a loss, but it’s a moment Green Bay Packers fans won’t soon forget, no matter how hard they try to repress the memories.
Mike McCarthy won’t soon forget it, either. His decision to have rookie wide receiver Jeremy Ross return punts in the playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers backfired in the worst way possible. With the Packers up 14-7 and building some momentum, they managed to stop the 49ers offense at midfield to begin the second quarter. Unfortunately, the ensuing punt was muffed by Ross at the Packers’ 10-yard line, and Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for a touchdown three plays later. The game was now tied, and all the momentum had shifted.
Make no mistake, Jeremy Ross could be an exceptional return man – maybe even better than Randall Cobb. He has the right combination of vision, speed, and elusiveness that can create substantial returns. The one ingredient that is missing, however, is ball security. And all things considered, it’s perhaps the most important ingredient. Teams can recover from poor field position, but it’s ten times harder to recover from a turnover.
Fast-forward to training camp, and Ross hasn’t shown any improvement in being able to field punts or make catches. He’s been given multiple reps as a returner, and it’s no secret that McCarthy would prefer him to be “the man” at that position. The head coach’s decision to put Ross into the Divisional Round game was, in large part, due to his desire to keep star wide receiver Cobb from unnecessary injury, and that desire hasn’t changed much. If the Packers can have a back-up wide receiver fielding punts and kickoffs, it reduces the risk of them losing a key player in the part of the game where injuries occur most often.
But so far, Jeremy Ross hasn’t done much to help the situation.
As training camp reports from the beat writers come out, we’ve seen some all-too-frequent accounts of muffed punts and dropped passes from Ross. JSOnline’s notes from Tuesday’s practice mention another pair of dropped passes by Ross, which adds to a growing list. Dropped passes obviously aren’t the same as muffed punts, and the mechanics of each type of catch are completely different; nevertheless, they both show a propensity for poor ball security. But even besides that, if he wants to make the 53-man roster, Ross will still need to show he’s valuable as both a wide receiver and a punt returner.