PHOENIX – Jeremy Ross’ muffed punt in the season-ending NFC playoff loss at San Francisco was a colossal, game-turning mistake, but he will still be given every chance to be the Green Bay Packers’ return man in 2013.
Speaking at the NFC coaches breakfast at the annual NFL Meetings on Wednesday, Packers coach Mike McCarthy singled out Ross and running back DuJuan Harris as two young players who played key roles late in the season – despite limited experience – and who could have an impact next season.
“When I look at Jeremy Ross and DuJuan Harris, I think, ‘Boy, it would’ve been great to have those guys in training camp.’ Or just have them a little earlier in the (season),” McCarthy said, having said earlier in the breakfast that Harris will have a chance to win the starting running back job next year.
“I mean, we put Jeremy Ross in there in some big football games. You talk about a leap of faith with a young guy – I’ve never done that. You’re talking about a young man that I didn’t meet until Week, I don’t know, 10? I don’t know when he arrived. That’s what injuries do to you. That’s when you have to make tough decisions like that. He responded.”
After fumbling an ill-conceived throwback lateral from Randall Cobb on a punt return at Chicago on Dec. 16, Ross had a 58-yard punt return in the Dec. 23 victory over Tennessee, then had a 44-yard kickoff return and a 32-yard punt return against Minnesota in the regular-season finale on Dec. 30. He worked only on kickoff returns in the NFC Wild Card game against the Vikings before handling both jobs against the 49ers – until the fumble, which landed him on the bench.
The fumble gave the 49ers the ball at the Green Bay 9-yard line – setting up a touchdown that tied the game at 14-14 – and swung the momentum in what turned out to be a 45-31 loss in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Cobb took over returns after that and actually muffed a pair of kickoffs, so Ross wasn’t alone in his mistakes. Then again, his lost possession for the Packers and was a major factor in them losing the game.
“He had the Chicago game, he had the big-play opportunity (on the trick play), and he came back and responded the next week,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “That fumbled punt, that’s a big play. That was a huge momentum swing. Especially when you get a team that the time of possession was so lopsided, to lose a series in that first half, that was obviously a big play in the game.”
Still, with Cobb’s role in the offense set to expand following the free-agent departure of Greg Jennings, it only make sense that the Packers give Ross another shot. Cobb was the Packers’ leading receiver last season in both receptions (80) and yards (954).
“(Ross) has ability. He has a real strong lower half, he’s got running back skills – which to me, the ideal returner is really a cross between a running back and a receiver. He has that ability,” McCarthy said. “I do like that about him. I like his confidence. He’s a very confident young man.
“Once again, he’s young. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunities in the NFL. I put him out there for a reason, I had confidence in him. But Randall wasn’t 100 percent, and it was kind of a backed-up situation, too. Hey, he’s going to get another chance. That’s all I can tell you.”
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