Worst in history? Packers trying to be positive in punt return game

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jake Kumerow sees something big for the Green Bay Packers' punt return unit this week.

Of course, the receiver/special-teamer's definition of the word is relative.

For the team on track for the NFL's record for fewest punt return yards in a season, anything that goes forward might qualify.

Through 12 games -- and with just four remaining -- the Packers have literally gone backward in the punt-return game with a season yardage total of minus-8 -- MINUS-8! -- yards.

"We're going to get out of that this week, though," Kumerow said. "Pop one for 8."

And then, as if Kumerow realized the absurdity of using the word "pop" to describe an 8-yard return, he added: "Eight-plus. Bring that [total] right back up."

Up to zero.

If the Packers don't start moving forward, they'll knock the 1967 Cardinals, who played in St. Louis, out of the record book. That team managed just 27 total yards on punt returns in a 14-game season.

To that end, the Packers claimed veteran returner Tyler Ervin off waivers this week. The Jaguars released him after a three-game inactive streak that followed a fumble in Week 8. After spinning Trevor Davis, Darrius Shepherd and Tremon Smith (for two different stints) through the revolving door of returners, Green Bay might be down to its last best option in Ervin.

Ervin, a running back by trade and a fourth-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2016, brought with him a career average of 8.3 yards on punt returns -- or 9.2 yards better than the Packers' season average of minus-0.9. He's also a kickoff returner with a 21.1-yard career average, better than the Packers' season average of 19.5 (which ranks 28th in the league).

It sounds like Ervin will handle both return jobs Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

"Yeah, that's the plan right now," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said shortly after Ervin arrived this week.

The Packers' search for a returner began when general manager Brian Gutekunst traded the productive but injury-prone Davis to the Raiders for a sixth-round draft pick on Sept. 19.

Coincidentally, the day the Packers claimed Ervin off waivers, Davis became available when the Raiders released him. He was claimed by Miami, which was higher on the priority list than the Packers. But according to a source, the Packers did not put in a claim on Davis anyway.

The Packers' longest punt return of the season actually came against the Giants last Sunday, when Smith gained 3 yards. Of course, it wasn't your garden-variety 3-yard return. Smith fumbled at the end of the run but was saved when the ball bounced out of bounds.

To be sure, the Packers have only nine punt returns all season; they have fair caught 21 punts. But the next-lowest punt return yardage total is 90, by the Redskins.

"You hit a 25-, 30-yard return, all of a sudden, 10 opportunities, you're talking 3 or 4 yards per return, which isn't good enough but suddenly you're not last in the league and you move up," special-teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. "That's something that we don't want to have hanging over us. The guys understand that. But it's not a deal where I'm going to lose a bunch of sleep over it at night and stuff. I see what we're doing. I see that we're doing better. It's just a matter of time. We'll get it fixed."

By week's end, Ervin had heard the number "minus-8" plenty and knows he might be the Packers' last-ditch effort to avoid an embarrassing record.

"Just going to go out there and try to make the plays when then they're there, not try to force anything but just go out and play my game," he said.

Ervin's game, according to Mennenga, is quickness.

"I like what he does as far as making guys miss and things like that and good quickness and acceleration," Mennenga said.

And Mennenga hopes that's what not only gets the Packers out of the negative in return yardage but avoids setting a dubious record.

"I don't want to have that hanging on my head," Mennenga said.