SAN FRANCISCO – If Mike McCarthy hadn’t just watched his team’s season come crashing down in the form of a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers head coach might’ve simply said, “I told you so.”
When returner Randall Cobb suffered knee and ankle injuries on a return Dec. 23 against Tennessee, many suggested – including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who did so publicly after the game – that Cobb had become too valuable to the offense to remain on special teams. McCarthy, though, was steadfast in believing that Cobb should return kicks, even after replacement Jeremy Ross had a 58-yard punt return in that game.
Then Ross had a 44-yard kickoff return and a 32-yard punt return against Minnesota in the regular-season finale, earning him the kickoff return job for the Packers’ NFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Vikings last week. Then, with Cobb having battled the flu all week, McCarthy let Ross return both punts and kickoffs Saturday night against the 49ers.
Ross muffed his second punt return of the night, losing the ball at the Packers’ 9-yard line after the Packers had just taken a 14-7 lead. Instead of having the lead and the ball, the Packers watched the 49ers punch it in three plays later on a 12-yard Colin Kaepernick-to-Michael Crabtree touchdown pass, and suddenly the game was tied and San Francisco had all the momentum.
“I think any time you play younger players, you’re always concerned about experience. The regular season’s a little different than playoffs,” McCarthy said. “I thought Jeremy played well last week. For him to drop the ball, there’s no excuse for it. It was not a difficult punt. Obviously, it turned into seven points for the 49ers.”
Ross was benched after that, with Cobb reclaiming both return jobs. It should be noted that Cobb muffed a kickoff later in the game. Ross did see action on offense but not on returns.
“I started focusing on the pressure that was coming. I was looking at the ball all the way in, but I was more focused on the peripheral, just kind of seeing and feeling it out,” Ross explained of the muff. “I was like, ‘When I catch it I have to move quick.’ I lost my fundamentals by keeping my elbows in tight. The ball just went straight through.”
Asked if he simply should’ve fair-caught the ball, Ross replied, “I just wanted to make the play. At that moment I was like, ‘I am just going to catch this ball, make this guy miss, and I am going to go for a touchdown.’ I just wanted to make a big play on that one. I probably should have fair caught it.”
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