In a season where Green Bay Packers fans have checked in their Super Bowl aspirations and begun to search for positives to build off of, Keisean Nixon has been a bright spot lately. Nixon has made contributions within the defense as a competent slot corner. However, he’s jumped off the screen as a kick returner, particularly this past Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. While his play is welcome within Rich Bisaccia’s special teams unit, it raises the question of what took so long for his impact to be felt.
Coming out of Sunday’s 40-33 loss to the Eagles, there were many superlatives relating to Nixon’s stat line, which finished as five kick returns for 172 yards. His average of 34.4 yards per return was just shy of double the career average of Amari Rodgers (18.9) and marked the highest average yards per return for a Packers player since Dave Hampton averaged 37.8 on Nov. 28, 1971. The two returns of 50-plus yards, both of which started in the end zone, were the two longest Green Bay returns in over seven years.
There are many aspects of football where statistics don’t tell the whole story, but the stats usually do when it comes to kick returns. Punt returns can be more variable depending on where specifically on the field the punter is executing his kick, but kickoff runbacks usually start from the same spot. If you’re inclined to bring it out of the end zone, as Nixon did on Sunday night, the payoff can be some exquisite field position for the offense. The next step is for the offense to capitalize on that advantage. Nixon’s 38-yard return led to a four-play, 59-yard scoring drive finished off by A.J. Dillon, but his 52-yard return led to a three-and-out, while his 53-yard return in the fourth quarter resulted in just a field goal.
It’s not on Nixon to convert the field position into points, but simply having that field position is something the Packers weren’t getting with Amari Rodgers returning kicks. Nixon wasn’t perfect. He lost a fumble that he was able to get back. But there was at least a sense of confidence and purpose to the way he was running, a feeling that had been lacking drastically from Bisaccia’s special teams.
So why did it take Nixon this long to make an impact? It’s hard to say exactly. Nixon was a seemingly innocuous signing in the offseason, a special teams/depth guy who was familiar with Bisaccia, having come over from the Las Vegas Raiders. On the flip side, there’s been an institutional loyalty toward draft picks that might have seeped into the decision to keep Rodgers as the primary returner. Usually, that type of affinity is reserved for a general manager, but it was Matt LaFleur and Bisaccia tabbing Rodgers to head back onto the field repeatedly. Even the language used by LaFleur in the wake of yet another fumble by Amari Rodgers seems to suggest that they would give him every last benefit of the doubt possible, whether or not it’s deserved.
It’s probably a stretch to say that the record would be much different than 4-8 had Nixon been returning kicks since Week 1. However, there is some rightful questioning as to why the coaching staff wouldn’t make the switch on what seems like an obvious call. It may have come down to Nixon’s role on defense, whereas Rodgers was almost invisible in the Green Bay offense.
The Packers signed Nixon to a 1-year, $965,000 contract before the season, but his play within two facets of the game will most assuredly garner him a payday of some sort in the offseason. A player who can fill a role as a slot corner and provide some juice in the return game would be a valuable asset for any team. It’s uncertain if the Packers would (or could?) give Nixon the contract he’s earned with his play lately. But at the very least, it’s a welcome dynamic for the remainder of this regular season.