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.”
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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