Kudos to Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy for recognizing the importance of special teams, and in particular the return game.
This business about avoiding use of either Randall Cobb or Micah Hyde on returns because of their importance to the offense and defense, respectively, is overstated.
"I get away from that thinking," said McCarthy. "I think it's dangerous to get into limitations and trying to be too cautious. When you're cautious and you're worried, negative things happen. We're going to put our best players back there. We need to be better on special teams, and a good returner makes any unit better."
Don't read too much into rookie wide receiver Davante Adams being sent out on punt returns in a torrential downpour in the Packers' preseason opener at Tennessee last week.
McCarthy has discussed the adverse weather conditions the team encountered in Nashville as being a great learning opportunity and how he can never find enough good players, regardless of position.
The coaching staff wanted to see if Adams' ample talent could translate to punt returns despite having little experience doing so at the college level.
If Adams succeeded, great. He'd be just another weapon at special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum's disposal. And if not, no big deal. At least they would know better than to trot him out at punt returner in the regular season.
The Packers are taking the absolute correct approach in finding out if DuJuan Harris should be the team's kickoff return specialist.
Asked what he likes about Harris, and McCarthy's Pavlovian response is the running back's short but stout body build.
"I think he's an excellent body type," said McCarthy. "I prefer his run style as far as the ways he fits the schemes of our return game. I think he's a very good fit for what we're doing."
Kickoffs have long had the reputation as having the highest injury rate of all plays in the NFL. That's why the league institued the rule change in 2011 moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, resulting in more touchbacks. Players on coverage units have also been limited to getting no more than a five-yard running start.
The NFL has boasted of fewer concussions occuring on kickoffs since the change, but the potential of a high-impact collision still exists on the nearly 55 percent of kickoffs that don't result in a touchback.
In those instances, it's hard to blame the Packers not wanting to expose Cobb and Hyde to injury. Even though Harris stands just 5-8, his compact, 203-pound fame seems better able to absorb the blows kickoffs invariably invite. His alleged 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash doesn't hurt either.
But there's no reason the Packers can't use either Cobb or Hyde on punt returns. Or both of them for that matter.
Cobb and Hyde have both proven to be dangerous on punt returns, each with at least one touchdown to his credit.
"We have a number of guys, Micah and Randall both have done it at a high level for us, so we feel good about that," said McCarthy.
In three seasons with the Packers, Cobb has averaged over 10 yards on 60 career punt returns, including a 75-yard and 80-yard touchdown.
During his first season, Hyde led all NFL rookies with a 12.3-yard punt return average last year on 24 attempts, including a 93-yard touchdown.
Between Hyde and Cobb, that is some big-play potential on which the Packers don't want to miss out.
If they're truly concerned about minimizing the potential of injury to either player, the Packers can employ some sort of punt return rotation among the pair.
The risk of injury on punt returns is mitigated by option of calling a fair catch, and that's not to mention the times a punt sails out of bounds or over a player's head for a touchback or the player simply allows it to hit the ground and roll.
In reality, the risk of injury on punt returns is not all that great, but the potential of a game-changing play still exists.
There's no NFL rule that states a team has to use only one punt returner and stick with them. By using both Cobb and Hyde in this capacity, the Packers can minimize exposure to both players and keep them fresh yet still take advantage of their unique skillset all at the same time.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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