Originally created 01/04/03

Packers miss Falcons punter



GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Atlanta Falcons punt returner Allen Rossum never wanted to leave Green Bay.

The Packers really wish he'd never gotten away, and not just because they have to face him Saturday night in a first-round NFC playoff game at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay has been unable to replace Rossum, who signed a three-year, $3 million contract with the Falcons last winter.

The Packers gave free agent Darrien Gordon the first shot, but it turned out that the only move worse than signing him was waiving him.

Saddled by inexperienced and ineffective blockers, Gordon averaged a league-worst 5.1 yards per return until he was unceremoniously dumped in December and signed by the Oakland Raiders.

Packers coach Mike Sherman put the ball in the hands of J.J. Moses, who had never played in the NFL.

And he committed the cardinal sin of punt returns: trying to pick up a bouncing ball.

Not once, mind you. Not twice, but three times in two weeks. Plus, he went out to field a punt on third down once and had to hustle off the field before a flag was thrown.

One week after making the mistake of going for a ball over his head and nearly turning it over at the 1-yard line in San Francisco, he made no effort to chase down a punt by Buffalo's Mike Moorman that bounced a good 25 yards and was downed at the Green Bay 2 for a team-record 84-yard punt.

Moses and his 2.4-yard average were jettisoned last week and Sherman brought 34-year-old Eric Metcalf out of retirement.

But Metcalf, who holds the NFL's career record for punt-return touchdowns with 10, was miserable in his first game Sunday against the New York Jets.

He dropped his first punt return, fumbled his second when a teammate was knocked into him, and finished with minus-1 yard on three chances.

"I was a little nervous out there," he admitted.

Nevertheless, he's the Packers' man for the playoffs, although if Metcalf struggles, Sherman won't hesitate to put in receiver Robert Ferguson, who will return kickoffs.

Rossum said he takes no solace in the Packers' predicament. In fact, he said he didn't even realize they had struggled so much trying to replace him.

"Until you told me that, I didn't know. That's unfortunate for them," Rossum said in a telephone interview from the Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga.

Of course, none of this would have happened were it not for some miscommunication in March.

The Packers made re-signing Rossum a priority after he averaged 9.9 yards on punt returns last season, including a game-winning 55-yard return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay, despite his missing most of the season with leg injuries.

The Packers promised to do their best to match any offer he got in free agency, and Rossum promised to give Green Bay every opportunity.

But it didn't happen.

Somehow, the Packers' offer wasn't relayed correctly somewhere along the line. Both sides blame each other for the mix up.

"I still really don't know what actually happened," Rossum said. "Whoever dropped the ball, my agent, me or the Packers, it's an unfortunate situation because we really had something good going there.

"You wish things could work out in a different way, but I'm here now and I'm happy."

Rossum averaged 12 yards on 24 returns this year, including a 36-yarder in the season opener at Lambeau Field, when the Packers won 37-34 in overtime.

"Allen's done a great job," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "We've had more changes on our special teams than anywhere else, so our blocking hasn't exactly been what we'd like. But he's been everything we had hoped for.

"We're tickled to death to have him."

And it's quite obvious the Packers are still smarting over losing Rossum.

"I lost sleep over it in March. I don't lose sleep over it now. There's nothing we can do," Packers special teams coach Frank Novak said. "I can't cry about someone I don't have. We lost him. We tried. The personnel department tried, Mike tried, we all tried.

"I would have liked to have had him, yeah, but that's not how it worked out. So, we did the best we could."

And it's gotten progressively worse.