For years, the Green Bay Packers have been plagued by piss-poor kick and punt return play.
Recently, it has gotten to the point where fans hope that the returners don’t even attempt to take the ball out of the endzone.
But in the Packers Monday night clash with the Los Angeles Rams, something happened that has never happened in the Aaron Rodgers era.
The opposing team purposely kicked away from Packers kick returner, Keisean Nixon.
“In all my 18 years, never once, until tonight, have I ever seen an opposing team’s kicker kick away from our returner. That’s fun,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game.
The Packers first signed Nixon in March to add depth to the cornerback room after former slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
Through the first 8 weeks of the season, Nixon played as a special teams gunner and saw limited snaps on defense. With Nixon filling in for the injured second-year cornerback Eric Stokes since week 9, his role on defense has grown exponentially.
Before Nixon was returning punts, wide receiver Amari Rodgers, the Packers third-round pick in 2021, had the job. However, Rodgers struggled with ball security, fumbling the football seven times in less than two seasons with the Packers.
The last straw occurred in Week 10 when Rodgers fumbled against the Dallas Cowboys with the game tied halfway through the third quarter. On Nov. 13, Rodgers was released, and Nixon was awarded the starting returner position.
Since taking over as the Packers starting kick and punt returner, Nixon has revolutionized the Packers return game.
In the last five games, Nixon has returned 22 kickoffs for an NFL-high 580 kickoff return yards (26.3 yards per return). During this stretch, he’s also returned six punts for 92 yards (15.3 yards per return).
Nixon’s recent production is a stark difference from Rodgers, who averaged a measly 18.9 yards per kick return and 7.6 yards per punt return in his time in Green Bay.
Nixon’s emergence has not come without criticism of the Packers coaching staff for not making the change earlier. Considering Rodgers’ inability to make explosive plays and fumbling issues, the change was long overdue.
“I know, we’re probably going to get criticized for not playing him early, and that’s fair,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said after the Packers Monday night win over the Rams. “We should have had him in there earlier and we didn’t. I don’t think we knew what we had. He’s proven what he brings to the table. Can’t say enough about what he brings to this team.”
“You hate to do the what ifs and lookbacks but (with) some of the ways that certain players are playing for us, you wonder how it would’ve been had things been different to start the season,” Rodgers said.
With three games left in the season, the Packers playoff hopes are slim. Even if they end up winning out, they’ll need to get some help from other teams. However, if the Packers build off of their win streak and Nixon continues to create big plays in the return game, those playoff hopes won’t look so slim come Week 18.
“It’s three now,” Rodgers said Monday after beating the Rams. “We’ve got two. Got two in the bag. I don’t know. Look, before the Bears week, we knew we had a bye afterwards, and those of us who sometimes peek ahead knew that we had to win five and then have a lot of things go our way. So we’ve won two and just about everything we needed to happen has gone our way. Just about, right? So things are looking up.”