GREEN BAY, Wis. - The photo is hanging from the front of the cupboard in Giorgio Tavecchio's locker, impossible to miss. It is not your typical locker-room clipping, but a few minutes into the conversation, it begins to make perfect sense.
Of course the Green Bay Packers kicker has an 8x10 of Pope Francis.
"When he was elected pope, I went to mass with my mother, and they just happened to have these flyers hanging around. I think there's a prayer on the back," Tavecchio explained at the end of the Packers' organized team activity practices last month. "I really respect the Pope for who he embodies – just a servant, really cares about those less fortunate than he, really connecting back with the Gospel about just loving others. That's the attitude I try to maintain in life in general, and then in football, just being the best teammate, best servant, best kicker possible."
In a football sense, Tavecchio could turn out to be a godsend, if he ends up winning the kicking job or his presence is enough to push incumbent kicker Mason Crosby back onto the path of consistency after an atrocious season last year.
"As I look ahead, this is an absolute blessing to be part of this organization. For someone who's been out of football for seven months, not having a team, it's just awesome to be a part of something like this," said Tavecchio, who kicked collegiately at California-Berkeley and went to camp with the San Francisco 49ers last summer before being cut. "I think it's gone well so far, and I hope to just continue this progression and carry it into camp."
For the first time since 2007, when he was a rookie sixth-round pick from Colorado and beat out incumbent Dave Rayner, Crosby will have head-to-head competition when camp begins with the first team practice Friday morning. The Packers resisted the urge to bring in someone else during the season, while Crosby was making just 21 of 33 field-goal attempts for an NFL-worst 63.6 conversion rate.
Although Crosby made his final six field-goal attempts (including playoffs), the Packers still brought in Tavecchio, who'll go kick-for-kick in practice with Crosby. Even if Crosby is at an advantage as the incumbent, the direct competition itself – rather than competing against the theoretical other kickers on the street – should benefit him.
"We will alternate. I'm not going to say it's going to be one kick after another. We've kicked a lot in this offseason program," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Mason's the incumbent. He's been here. He had a rough year last year from a statistical standpoint but he finished with six consecutive makes and back on the upswing. I think he's had a solid offseason so far and I look forward to that continuing through camp."
For his part, Crosby insists that his confidence is fine and he'll return to the form he showed in 2011, when he made 24 of 28 kicks for a career-high 85.7 percent conversion rate and nailed the second game-winning kick of his career.
"Obviously there were a couple (kicks) throughout the season that I wasn't happy with. I had some bad ball flights," Crosby said. "You put on a line on a ball and hit it. I hit a couple uprights when the ball just moved a little bit. I don't want to overanalyze things. I don't want to break everything down where I'm starting over so I just draw from the good things. I look at the ones that might not have been struck purely and I break those down probably more than others and make sure that I eliminate anything that might have been in those. I've been hitting the ball this offseason and that's what I'm going to carry on into camp."
The kicking competition is one of two significant issues facing the special teams units; finding a suitable returner to alleviate some of rising star Randall Cobb's workload is another. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during OTAs that Cobb's "special teams responsibility is really up to his teammates," and Jeremy Ross is the leading contender to fill that void.
But while there are other competitions that will carry through camp – right tackle and safety perhaps at the top of the list – the kicking competition will be one to follow. Recent Packers historians recall another kicker from Cal who came in after being cut by the 49ers when the starter faltered: Ryan Longwell, who replaced ineffective and injured third-round pick Brett Conway in preseason and went on to become the franchise's all-time leading scorer.
While the odds are against Tavecchio replicating Longwell's career in Green Bay, he's ready for whatever opportunity comes.
"To be honest, I don't really think about it too much because I can't really control what the coaches have in their minds. I've had moments in the past where I tried to figure out what was in coaches' minds and to me, it often seemed illogical," Tavecchio said. "Whatever capacity is presented to me here, whether it's a full-on competition or they have other plans in mind, I'm going to give it my best because it's not fair to myself and – I'm a very spiritual person – not fair to God and not fair to my teammates to give any less.
"I heard a quote from Mother Teresa and also St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘I pray like it all depends on him, but I work like it all depends on me.' As a kicker, you have to be spiritual about things but that's not an excuse to shirk your responsibility and go out there and say, ‘I hope it goes well.' No. You have to put in your work, and in the end, if you have that faith that God will be with you, it will work out the way it's meant to be. That's kind of the dichotomy between working super-hard and just letting go and trusting."
QUICK READ: SPECIAL TEAMS
|25||James Nixon||KR||6-0||186||25||1||Calif. (Pa.)|
Can the Packers afford to take Cobb off returns?
The converse of that question, of course, is whether they can afford to not take him off returns. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers started publicly advocating for the idea of replacing Cobb on returns while the season was still in full swing, based on the expansion of Cobb's role in the offense and the emergence of Ross late in the year. Then came the costly muffed punt by Ross in the NFC Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco, and coach Mike McCarthy, who immediately benched Ross and went back to Cobb, had to be having second thoughts on the idea. With a new year comes new opportunity, and since Ross wasn't with the team until joining the practice squad in-season, an offseason in the program and a training camp of competing could help him win back everyone's confidence. If he does,
On the rise
Remember Derrick Frost and Jeremy Kapinos? Masthay has put the Packers' punting problems far in the past. He tied the franchise record last year with 30 punts inside the 20-yard line, broke the franchise record for the third straight year for net punting average (37.65 in 2010, 38.56 in 2011 and 38.93 last year) despite the less-than-ideal conditions at Lambeau Field, and his career gross punting average of 44.2 is the best in team history. And he's still getting better.
Player to watch
There's no doubt his gaffe was one of epic, game-changing proportions, but it wasn't because of inexperience – it was, perhaps, due to overconfidence. Much like Cobb has been prone to do, Ross didn't secure the ball before taking off, and the results were disastrous. Nevertheless, his confidence didn't seem shaken in the offseason, and he said he shook off the mistake within a few days rather than obsessing about it. There's no question he's talented, as shown on his 58-yard punt return in the Dec. 23 victory over Tennessee, as well as a 44-yard kickoff return and a 32-yard punt return against Minnesota in the regular-season finale on Dec. 30. "(Ross) has ability. He has a real strong lower half, he's got running back skills – which to me, the ideal returner is really a cross between a running back and a receiver. He has that ability," McCarthy said. "I do like that about him. I like his confidence. He's a very confident young man. Once again, he's young. He hasn't had a lot of opportunities in the NFL. I put him out there for a reason, I had confidence in him. But Randall wasn't 100 percent, and it was kind of a backed-up situation, too. Hey, he's going to get another chance. That's all I can tell you."
The new Cobb.
Certainly Crosby vs. Tavecchio is the marquee competition, but the undercard has to be the search for Cobb's would-be replacement. Although Ross would seemingly have a leg up, Franklin is an intriguing prospect as a kickoff returner, and Nixon could do either job. The coaching staff is intrigued by the possibilities, but in the end, it could all be moot. This team has shown repeatedly that it doesn't see using a starter on returns as being too risky, so it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Cobb still on returns. One other possibility: A by-committee approach that uses Cobb only in crucial situations. "I wouldn't mind having guys do it by situation. It's been done," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Chicago has done with (Johnny) Knox and (Devin) Hester and Danieal Manning. They had three guys in the mix and were pretty good at it. It's been done, you do it in other areas – defensively with sub groups, offensively with different skill position makeups – so we're capable of going that direction. It's way too early. We're not going to make that decision now, because if we make a decision now, we're making it without all the information we're going to obtain between now and when the season starts."
Crosby's kicking numbers were beyond atrocious last year. According to research done by the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Wes Hodkiewicz, since 2002, 12 kickers have failed to make 70 percent of their field-goal attempts in a season, including Crosby. Of the 11 others, five were not retained the following season. Of the six who were brought back, only two (Jacksonville's Josh Scobee and Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski) survived more than one year with the team. The only kickers to have worse seasons than Crosby since 2002: Pittsburgh's Todd Peterson in 2002 (12 of 21, 57.1 percent); Jacksonville's Seth Marler in 2003 (20 of 33, 60.6 percent); Tampa Bay's Martin Gramatica in 2003 (16 of 26, 61.5 percent); and Chicago's Paul Edinger in 2004 (15 of 24, 62.5 percent).
"I kept working hard. I kept my head down, striving to be the best I can be. At the end of the season I finally came out of the funk, as you want to call it. So I felt good with how I just kept working. Obviously the organization sticking behind me kept building that confidence. For me, I never lost it. I never lost it in my head I just kept going out every day trying to do the things I know best and work on those details. I finished the season how I wanted to. I'm carrying that over into the offseason and making sure that I eliminate any of those thing that might have popped up during the season last year. Obviously I had a good year the year before and I had to build off of that success and make sure that those things carry over and those successful kicks and makes are what's in my forefront right now." – Crosby, on his mentality after struggling mightily last year.
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.
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