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Chatman Provides Steady Returns


GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman calls it the hardest position in football.

And on the Green Bay Packers' current roster it isn't filled by a one-time All-Pro or a three-time NFL MVP, but by a two-time AFLer.

Signed in June after two standout seasons with the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League, Packers punt returner Antonio Chatman has yet to break one for a touchdown this season. But with his sure hands and field smarts, Chatman has offered stability in a place where the Packers were weak a season ago.

"The thing I kind of forget sometimes, that I remind myself every time he makes a pretty good decision back there, is how we struggled (in 2002)," Sherman said this week. "That was a real significant problem for me, which isn't necessarily a problem right now."

Four weeks ago, Sherman made changes to the Packers' kickoff return unit when he replaced the 5-foot-9, 177-pound Chatman with the larger-bodied, two-person attack of Najeh Davenport (6-1, 245) and Robert Ferguson (6-1, 209).

The boost in size added some spark to a group that since is averaging 4 yards more per return than over the first 10 games of the season.

But sometimes the best move a coach makes is to make no move at all. And while the Packers would like to improve upon their standing as the 26th-best punt return team in the league, Sherman suggested this week that removing Chatman isn't the answer.

"We catch the ball, we field the ball, we make pretty good decisions," Sherman said of the punt return unit. "Are we retuning them for touchdowns? No. Are we threatening to break the game open? Not yet we haven't ... But (Chatman) has not done anything to lose his job."

In 2002, Sherman's attempts to refurbish a dilapidated punt return team wound up doing more harm than good.

After the 13th game of the season, with the NFC North title already wrapped up, Sherman waived return man Darrien Gordon and his 5.1-yard average, only to have J.J. Moses and Eric Metcalf generate fewer return yards (1.3 avg.) in subsequent weeks, while also misplaying several punts that led to poor field position and turnovers.

At 7.6 yards per attempt, Chatman's punt return average ranks him 10th in the NFC, but the Packers learned last season that yards preserved are just as precious as yards gained.

And in that respect, Chatman has shined. His 16 fair catches rank him second in the league and he's yet to have a muff.

Likewise, Chatman's decision making on which punts to field and which to let go has been superb.

Compared to nine drives that have started at the 20-yard line after touchbacks, following punts only seven Packers drives this season have started inside the 15-yard line, and only two have started inside the 9-yard line.

"Believe me, I want to be making big returns, too," said Chatman, who nowadays sees roughly six plays a game. "I wait on the sideline and if I go in there and the other team is close to the 50-yard line, I know I'm not going to get a chance to return it. It's either going to be a fair catch or a touchback.

"It's frustrating, but you really can't do anything about it. Nobody plays football not to succeed. But I've done the best that I can with the situation that I'm in."

Not everyone can be as elusive as Kansas City's Dante Hall, but even if Chatman could replicate the moves of the NFL's most dynamic return man, the Packers' punt return philosophy is different than that of the Chiefs.

Special teams coordinator John Bonamego prefers to pressure punters rather than build for returns, and Chatman said he doesn't have the green light to make all the improvisations that make Hall so unpredictable.

"I'm not one to make excuses," Chatman said. "I think I've done all right, but there haven't been many times where there's been a lot of room to create.

"If they put somebody else back there, I honestly don't think a lot would change right now because we put so much emphasis on getting to the punter. And I understand that."

In reviewing his season to this point, Chatman said his only major mistake was not making the 'Peter' call -- which instructs blockers to get away from the football -- soon enough against Detroit in Week 2 on a punt that struck Marcus Wilkins and caused a turnover.

The only other play he'd like to have over again would be the change-of-direction return he made against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, when he lost 10 yards and ate up valuable seconds in a situation where the Packers trailed by 8 points with no time outs remaining and less than a minute to go in the game.

In the latter case, Chatman said he was just doing his best to give his team a spark.

"If I was in the same situation now, I wouldn't try to do as much as I did, reversing field and all that," he said. "I would have just gone one way and done the best that I could with that. But sometimes it's hard to stay patient."

Similarly, it would be easy for Sherman to assume that by changing one piece of the puzzle midseason, the Packers could generate the big punt returns that have eluded them so far. But, as he found out last season, when dealing with the hardest position in football, it's never that simple.

"Would I like touchdowns? Yes, and we haven't had those," Sherman said. "But I'm pleased with where (Chatman) is as far as what he's done for us."

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