Jeremy Ross isn’t about to make the same mistake twice. Not with the stakes as high as they are, and not after what happened the last time he tried a bit too hard – with disastrous results.
In the 239 days that will have passed between the Green Bay Packers return man’s muffed punt in the team’s season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco and Sunday’s regular-season opener against those same 49ers at Candlestick Park, Ross hasn’t spent much time obsessing about his mistake.
For one, he couldn’t afford to; he had to earn a spot on the 53-man roster and overcome an inconsistent training camp to do so. And two, it’s not in his outgoing, occasionally goofy personality to spend too much time down in the dumps.
Maybe that’s why he’s looking at Sunday’s rematch as something to embrace, not fear.
“Coming back, it’s exciting. It’s exciting to be able to come back and be able to play again in San Francisco,” Ross said. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for me and my team to do some great things to open up the season.”
The mistake Ross made on that play wasn’t one of inexperience. Rather, he was so anxious to make something happen that he failed to secure the ball before taking off upfield, sensing that there was a big play in the making.
“It was just losing sight of my technique, for one, and definitely wanting to make a play (with) the situation, the circumstances that were there – being home, San Francisco, playoff game. I just wanted to make a play,” said Ross, who was born in San Diego but went to California-Berkeley and now lives in Richmond, Calif., just north of Cal’s campus. “I just got outside myself and didn’t make a good decision. I could have easily fair-caught the ball and I would’ve been in good shape.”
Instead, 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. Randall Cobb took over returns after that and actually muffed a pair of kickoffs, so Ross wasn’t alone in his mistakes, but the lost possession for the Packers was huge.
“Just this game, it’s important to just not let the circumstances, the situation get me too emotionally high,” Ross said. “Once we hit the field, it has to be just another game.”
Just what role Ross will play on returns is unclear; Packers coach Mike McCarthy always wants to have as many elements of surprise in his favor in the opener as possible. Thus, neither he nor special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum would divulge whether Ross will handle kickoffs, punts or both – and how much Cobb will factor in.
“Cobb’s in the picture,” Slocum said Thursday. “I just want production. That’s the main thing I want. We’ve got guys here that can productive. I think that was evident through the preseason.”
In each of the Packers’ two season-openers, Cobb has delivered a return for a touchdown. Last year against the 49ers, it was a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. Two years ago, as a rookie, he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
But the Packers would like nothing more than for Ross not only to handle the jobs, but provide the lift Cobb has in that role. Slocum said the coaches would decide during Friday morning’s game management meeting what to do on returns, with rookies Micah Hyde (punts) and Johnathan Franklin (kickoffs) also under consideration.
“I go in with the mindset that I’ll be the guy,” Ross said. “I think that’s how we all go in – staying prepared, being on our toes and then if our number is called, we’re ready.”
The 6-foot, 215-pound Ross would make the most sense, and other than Cobb, he has the longest returning resumé, too. He left Cal ranked second all-time in punt returns (31 returns, 471 yards, one touchdown, 15.2-yard average; only DeSean Jackson had more success) and he came on strong at the end of last season, which earned him the opportunity that led to his fateful fumble.
After fumbling an ill-conceived throwback lateral from 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.
In his exit interview after the season, McCarthy made it clear to Ross that he wanted him back for a chance to come to training camp and earn a spot on the roster. While Hyde, Franklin and others auditioned on returns, Ross focused on working at wide receiver and overcame a rough patch midway through camp to earn the No. 5 receiver spot over a group of appealing rookies. Ross’ three receptions for 50 yards in the preseason finale at Kansas City sealed his spot.
“He had some ups and downs during training camp. He knows that. We talked about it,” McCarthy said. “It’s why you play that fourth preseason game. People don’t really put enough into that, both outside and inside. It’s a very important game. There are a number of positions that were decided that night and Jeremy was definitely one of those.”
It also benefitted Ross that he was able to be on the roster for all of the offseason program and training camp after joining the Packers’ practice squad on Oct. 17 last year and getting promoted to the 53-man roster on Dec. 1.
“I think training camp was a great experience, and I felt like it was forward progress – with some hazards in the middle,” said Ross, who finished preseason with seven catches for 70 yards, a 10.5-yard average on two punt returns and a 23.3-yard average on four kickoff returns. “I felt like I grew a lot as a player in training camp, I got a lot of good experience in the preseason, just being able to get a lot of significant playing time. That has helped me out a lot. I felt like I only got better as things went on and I learned some things about myself.”
He also learned some things about himself in the wake of his mistake. He confided earlier this week that he didn’t move past it as quickly as he might have claimed he did initially – it wasn’t until he returned home to California and spent some time with friends like Phil Johnson, Sam Manuel and John Gilchrist from Bay Area Christian Church, a non-denominational Christian where Ross is an active member.
“I’ve known them since my freshman year in college,” Ross said. “I had a lot of great people in my circle, a lot of great friends and family who just helped me out a lot with my perspective – just conversations with them helping me to see the bigger picture than just what happened on that play. I think that helped me a lot, just to get some perspective on the situation and move forward.
“It’s not a matter of redemption for me. For me, it’s just another game. I’ve got to prepare the same so when I go in, I just try to be successful. That’s the only thing I can do. I think if I were to go into any other game, I would have the same mindset – make plays and try to do my thing.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.