Special teams have been a problem for the Green Bay Packers in recent years and the return game has been a part of that problem. In fact, the last return specialist to make the Pro Bowl for the Packers is Roell Preston back in 1998.
But the Packers haven’t always struggled on special teams. In fact, some outstanding return specialists have worn the green and gold.
Here is a look at the top punt returners in Packers history. This list is limited to punt returns, so Travis Williams, for example, who was primarily a kick returner, is not on this list. The players are ranked solely on their performance with the Packers so anybody who was a great punt returner on another team is not taken into consideration unless they also exceled with the Pack.
Here are the ten best punt returners in Green Bay Packers history:
- Willard Harrell (1975-1977)
Harrell stood only 5’8” and weighed just 162 pounds, but the former Pacific star was quick and elusive when he got the football in space.
Harrell’s best moment came in Week 1 of the 1977 season when he returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in a game the Packers eventually won 24-20.
In addition to his return prowess, Harrell was dangerous throwing the halfback option. He threw four touchdown passes in his first two seasons with the Packers.
- Walter Stanley (1985-1988)
Stanley spent four seasons with the Packers and returned both punts and kicks in all of them. His best season statistically came in 1985 when he averaged 12.8-yards per return as a rookie.
His most memorable moment as a punt returner came on Thanksgiving Day in 1986 in Detroit. With the Packers trailing 40-37 in the final minute of the game, the Colorado Mesa alum ignored head coach Forrest Gregg’s instructions and opted to return a punt deep in Packers territory. He ran it back 83 yards for the game-winning touchdown as the Packers beat the Lions 44-40 in a thrilling game that was the highlight of the 1986 season.
- Roell Preston (1997-1998)
Preston made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in 1998. He was a better kick returner than punt returner but still averaged nine-yards per punt return on 44 attempts and scored a 71-yard punt return in the Packers 28-10 win over the Ravens at Lambeau Field in Week 8.
One year later, Preston played for three teams in what was his final NFL season. He was only a Packers player briefly, but he made his impact as a returner while he was here.
- Ken Ellis (1970-1975)
Ellis was best known as a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Packers but he also had success returning punts. His best season as a return specialist came in 1972 when he averaged 15.4-yards per runback.
He scored on an 80-yard punt return against the Lions on Monday Night Football that helped the Packers overcome an early 17-0 deficit to beat Detroit 24-23.
- Steve Odom (1974-1979)
Odom was a small but swift wide receiver who specialized in big plays. During his six seasons with the Packers, he scored on a 95-yard catch, a 95-yard kickoff return and a 95-yard punt return.
The punt return came in his first season with the team in the Packers 20-3 win over the Bears at Milwaukee County Stadium. The score put the Packers ahead to stay, 10-3.
In 1975, Odom was selected to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
- Randall Cobb (2011-2018, 2021-present)
Cobb was a dangerous punt returner but he only served as the team’s primary punt returner for three seasons. After that, he had a large role in the offense and his role on special teams was curtailed.
Cobb’s best year as a punt returner was 2011 when he averaged 11.3-yards per runback including an 80-yard runback for a touchdown that sparked the Packers 45-7 thrashing of the Vikings at Lambeau Field.
Although he is no longer the team’s primary return specialist, Cobb is still available when the team needs somebody reliable to return punts.
- Micah Hyde (2013-2016)
Hyde was an electric punt returner for the Packers during his first two years in the league. The Iowa alum scored three touchdowns on punt returns in those two seasons and averaged 12.3-yards per punt return in 2013 and an even more impressive 15.8-yards in 2014.
Hyde would be even higher on this list, but his production fell off in his final two seasons with the Pack as his average fell to 5.8-yards per runback in each of the next two campaigns.
The longest punt return of Hyde’s time with the Packers came in his rookie season when he ran back a punt 93 yards for a touchdown in Week 8 in Minnesota. The score broke open a 17-10 game that the Packers eventually won 44-31.
Since moving on to the Bills, Hyde has never returned more than nine punts in a season as he has concentrated more on playing defense.
- Billy Grimes (1950-1952)
Billy Grimes played three seasons with the Pacers but he was a dangerous weapon on punt returns. In 1950, he led the NFL with a 19.1-yard average per runback and in yards with 555. The 19.1-yards per punt return remains a Packers franchise record.
The Packers only won three games in 1950 but Grimes returned two points for touchdowns which contributed directly to two of those victories. He earned Pro Bowl honors that season.
After falling off to a 6.3-yard average in 1951, Grimes returned to form by averaging 9.9-yards per punt return in 1952. It was his last year as a Packer and in professional football. Had he played longer, Grimes would likely be higher on this list.
- Willie Wood (1960-1971)
Hall of Famer Willie Wood was inducted into Canton for his fine play at safety but the former USC star was also a stellar punt returner. Three times Wood averaged more than 10 yards per punt return in a season including a career-high 16.1-yards in 1961. That season, he returned two punts for touchdowns including a 72-yard jaunt in a 45-7 rout of the Baltimore Colts.
In 1964, Wood led the NFL by averaging 13.3-yards per punt return.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. While he is remembered for what he did on defense, he was also a darn good punt returner for the Packers throughout his career.
- Desmond Howard (1996, 1999)
Desmond Howard was a real difference maker for the Packers in 1996. The former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan returned three punts for touchdowns during the regular season, added another in the Packers playoff win over the 49ers. He also scored on a kick return (which doesn’t count in this ranking) against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Howard also returned six punts in the Super Bowl for 90 yards, an impressive average of 15 yards per runback. He remains the only special teams player to be named the MVP of a Super Bowl.
During the 1996 regular season, Howard led the NFL in punt return yardage (875), average (15.1) and touchdowns (3). His NFL career was in serious jeopardy before the season started but he returned a punt for a touchdown in the final preseason game to cement a spot on the roster.
Howard returned to the Packers midway through the 1999 season and averaged 7.8-yards per return.
His place in Packers history is secure and it’s unclear if the 1996 Packers win the Super Bowl without his contributions.
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