By now, people outside of South Bend know who Ryan Grant is. If they don't, well, they were probably eliminated from their fantasy football playoffs a long, long time ago.
The defense? After an October spread in The Sporting News magazine, an ESPN Sunday Countdown special on the team's defensive line, two Pro Bowl bids, three alternate Pro Bowl bids and weekly attention-grabbing big plays, the best kept preseason secret is a secret no more.
Now Green Bay's best kept regular season secret is leaking to the public.
A back-breaking cavalry of returners led by Koren Robinson has consistently given Favre and the NFL's third-ranked offense a short field to work with, especially as of late. More than anything, this is the X-Factor Green Bay needs in January against the likes of Dallas and New England.
Think Desmond Howard-Don Beebe times two.
Sunday, Robinson returned three first-half kickoffs to the GB 48, STL 13 (before a penalty brought it back 32 yards) and the GB 32, leading to 14 points. In 11 returns the past two weeks, Robinson and Will Blackmon have combined for 253 yards and a touchdown.
Along with Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, this duo has invigorated a third of the game that has been virtually nonexistent for the past five years. Instead of desperately reaching into a dry pool of mid-season free agents and auditioning third and fourth stringers from other positions as the Packers have done since Allen Rossum departed in 2002, this year's team has two primary returners and two other legitimate alternatives. Not a lumbering Najeh Davenport. Not a 5-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Antonio Chatman. Not a Europa-talent in Ahmad Carroll. And not a Darrien Gordon, whose arm may still be sore from fair-catching once every four punts in ‘02.
"It doesn't matter who you put back," Blackmon said. "Put Tramon back there and he'll take it 95 (yards). Charles has ability, Koren and I've shown I have ability as well so it's fun having all those people back there."
The resurgence isn't a coincidence. It was design.
Thompson laid the foundation
Ideally, most NFL general managers would prefer to let special teams groupings develop naturally with feisty backups seamlessly finding a niche as kamikazes, wedge-busters and returners. Green Bay's top boss, Ted Thompson, has opted for unwavering commitment to special teams, by adding core overall athletes and raw speed to the team in three years at the helm.
And it shows. Plodding returns are history. Instead, lanes are developing and the Packers' returners are hitting them. While the offense and defense improved steadily throughout 2006, Green Bay's special teams resembled the pre-Thomas Edison era. No electricity. The Pack ranked 32nd in kick return average (19.7) and was one of only three teams that failed to produce a 40-yard return. The punt return teams were equally stagnant, ranking 24th with only one 40-plus return.
Let there be light.
Through 14 games this season, the Packers' four-headed monster has gone for at least 40 yards seven times in 14 games this season – good for third in the league. That's six more game-changing plays than last year. Maybe that is the biggest reason why the Packers have gone from 8-8 to 12-2. Favre, Grant, Driver and company are working the 9-to-5, but Robinson, Blackmon, Woodson and Williams have allowed them come to work late almost every drive.
Such a sudden progression goes beyond Robinson's reinstatement and Blackmon's healed right foot. Thompson has invested precious draft picks in the return units as a whole. Justin Harrell and Brandon Jackson have been flops thus far but Thompson has shown a Ron Wolf-knack for drafting gems late in Day Two. In the later rounds, he has consistently sought athletes that relish contact, possess a ‘70's mindset and finish plays.
On Robinson's would-be 88-yard runback at St. Louis the pieces to the Thompson's puzzle connected.
A pair of sixth round picks, Desmond Bishop (2007) and Mike Montgomery (2005), anchored the return with an initial block on Tim McGarigle. Robinson broke a tackle and slid underneath Aaron Rouse ('07, third) who cleanly locked Travis Minor to the outside for 6 ½ seconds. This allowed a lane to the right to develop and Robinson hit it. He then reversed direction because for 6 seconds John Kuhn stalemated tight end Richard Owens, who has four inches and 23 pounds on the late preseason Thompson trade pickup. At this point, Robinson had a full head of steam to streak upfield where only a random mound in the Edward Jones FieldTurf could stop him (or maybe he should have triple-knotted his right shoe). If Rouse or Kuhn lets up on their blocks, this would is just been another 25-yard return.
Credit Thompson for adding Korey Hall, Bishop and Montgomery among others that have provided stability to all four special teams units. They have been the glue all year for Robinson, Williams, Blackmon and Woodson. All four of these returners were also aggressively acquired by Thompson.
He gave K-Rob when nobody else would. He rewarded the long shot Williams with a roster spot after a great camp. He drafted Blackmon in the fourth round of the '06 draft purely as a prospective returner. And he gave a so-called aging, injury-prone cornerback a seven-year, $52 million contract.
Koren Robinson wasn't allowed to step foot on the Green Bay Packers' facilities while serving a one-year suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. From Week Seven of last year to Week Nine of this year, Robinson's NFL future hung loosely in the balance. Whether Thompson would welcome the troubled wideout back to the team was anyone's guess, especially after strong training camps from backup receivers James Jones, Ruvell Martin, Carlyle Holiday, Shaun Bodiford and Chris Francies.
But there is always a roster spot for a dangerous kick returner … even with one already on the roster (Williams).
Through seven games, Robinson has drastically shrunken the field for Favre.
On 19 Robinson kickoff returns this season, the Packers' average starting field position is the 31-yard line. Robinson has returned 11 of the 19 kicks to at least the 27-yard line, while only being stuffed behind the 20 on three occasions. Last season, the team's top kick returner, Vernand Morency, averaged 21.6 per runback. Robinson, this season? 26.7.
Like Howard 11 years ago, Robinson is gaining chemistry with his blockers as the playoffs near. Green Bay's kickoff return unit is learning Robinson's unique tempo and it's leading to dynamic returns.
He is a different breed in size and style. Robinson doesn't pogo-stick downfield as Dante Hall did in his prime. He doesn't duck and dart horizontally as Buffalo's Terrance McGee does and he's more of a slippery slider than a juker. The 2005 Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler makes up for a lack of sudden quickness with a rare combination of size, strength and stride.
To every old-school fan's dismay, coverage units chronically attack torso of kick returners for a monster hit and a predetermined post-hit celebration. This over-pursuing allows Robinson's 6-1, 205 frame to effortlessly shrug off the initial wave. His swivel hips allow him to slide past the next layer and if some green exists beyond that K-Rob's high-knee, Whitetail-like stride is tough to catch in the open field.
The hard-nosed athletes Thompson drafted as core special-teamers are meshing with Robinson's unique style.
"I think Koren has improved over the last couple of weeks," said Mike McCarthy. "I think he's comfortable now with the blocking in the return game. I thought our return game was excellent as far as the blocking, and he just shows you his big-play ability with the ball in his hands."
The right time to get hot
The Packers beat the Rams 33-14 last week but it should have been much, much worse.
Six of the Packers' 12 offensive drives began in St. Louis territory. Once again, Mike Stock's special teams units minimized Favre's 9-to-5. The offense barely had to break a sweat in their eighth 30-point splurge. The offense's seven scoring drives (3 TD, 4 FG) lasted an average of 2 minutes and 23 seconds each.
"You talk about a group that came ready to play," McCarthy said. "Actually we gave the game ball to the whole special teams group. It started on the first kickoff, and to have 363 yards of field position, I think that in itself tells you what kind of day you potentially could have had on offense."
An offense that is scoring 28 points per game has the potential to score more. That's scary…and realistic. If the rich got richer with Grant's emergence at Denver on Monday Night Football Oct. 29, the richer got richest with the return of Robinson and Blackmon. At least in the NFC.
Offensively and defensively, the Packers and Cowboys are obviously a cut above Tampa Bay, Seattle, New York and Minnesota in the NFC. So if the two conference powers meet again in the championship, what will give? It could be Dallas' suspect kick coverage.
Four of the past five kick returners the Cowboys have faced averaged over 24 yards per return – J.R. Reed (26.3), Aveion Cason (27.0), Leon Washington (24.3) and Rock Cartwright (29.0). This isn't a random rough patch either. Buffalo's McGee and St. Louis' Hall each exploited Dallas' coverage units early in the season. McGee averaged 48 per kick return against the ‘Boys, including a 103-yard touchdown runback. Hall went for 30.2 on five returns and 27.8 per punt return, including the Rams' only score that day- an 85-yard masterpiece that featured a comedy of seven Cowboy missed tackles.
In a Green Bay-Dallas rematch, Favre and Romo are bound to trade punches.
Robinson may provide the knockout.
Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University and a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.