The Lass Word: From Out of Nowhere

Nixon's rise is the real story of 2022, and a key to 2023.

The most incredible story of the Green Bay Packers season of 2022 had nothing to do with Aaron Rodgers or Christian Watson or a late season run for the playoffs. Without question, the most remarkable thing that happened in 2022 was the meteoric rise of Keisean Nixon who, from out of nowhere, burst on the scene as the best kickoff returner in all of pro football.  

What Nixon accomplished last fall was not only surprising, it was historic. The Packers have been around for 103 years. On New Year’s Day, when Nixon returned a kick 105 yards for a touchdown against the Vikings, it was the first kick brought all the way back for a score in eleven years. Not since Randall Cobb’s memorable NFL record-tying 108 yard return in the season opening game of 2011 had Green Bay returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The 105 yard effort was the longest in the entire league last season. 

The former South Carolina product led the NFL in kickoff return yardage with 1009. What makes that even more jaw-dropping is that Nixon didn’t even start returning kicks until week six, when the Packers finally gave up on Amari Rodgers. The Associated Press voted him first team All Pro. The only Green Bay player to achieve that distinction in 2022  (Jaire Alexander was voted to the second team).

To truly appreciate the unlikelihood of this happening, it helps to understand Keisean's back story.  He grew up on the mean streets of Compton, California.  The same Compton that was the setting for the movie "Straight Outta Compton", which stamped the city as a center of gang violence and drive by shootings.  One survey named it the most dangerous small city in America.  As a high school player Nixon missed the majority of his senior season because of a broken collar bone.  As a result he was ignored by the major college recruiting websites, who didn't even include him as a prospect.  Courted by almost none of the college programs, Nixon chose to attend Arizona Western Community College.  As a small fish in a small pond, he worked hard and, over the next year, built himself into one of the top juco transfer prospects in the nation.  An offer came from South Carolina.  The prospect of transferring to the Southeastern Conference, which operates basically as NFL football for young adults, was too good to pass up.

His two years in the Gamecocks program were ordinary at best.  In 16 games as a cornerback he had 71 tackles, 9 passes defensed, with one interception.  He returned just three kickoffs for an unimpressive average of 15 yards per attempt.  But along the way he developed a reputation as a relentless pursuer on coverage units. It wasn't enough to impress the pro scouts.   The young athlete, who once played in Snoop Dog's Youth Football League as a kid, went undrafted in 2019.

That might have been the end of his story.  Except a certain special teams coach for the Oakland Raiders with a keen eye for talent had taken notice.  The coach's name was Rich Bisaccia.  He urged head coach Jon Gruden to bring Nixon in as a UDFA.   A long shot to make the roster, Nixon fought his way on to the final 53, due almost solely to his efforts as a kick coverage guy.  That's what makes his Green Bay emergence as a premier kick returner so unexpected.  The only reason he got a chance to stick was because of his coverage ability, not as a returner.  As a rookie he was a standout on the Raiders kickoff coverage unit with nine tackles.The next year the Raiders moved to Las Vegas and Bisaccia made sure Nixon went with them. Over his three seasons with the Raiders, Nixon earned his keep as a key coverage guy, but Bisaccia used Nixon as a return man just six times. The results were less than sterling. Just 14 yards per return.

When Vegas cleaned house after the 2021 campaign, Matt LaFleur jumped at the chance to bring Bisaccia on board as special teams boss. Bisaccia, in turn, was quick to urge the team to sign Nixon. It was their best move of the off season, though they didn’t know it at the time. You know the rest of the story.  Nixon got his chance to return kicks against the Jets on October 16th.  He only got an opportunity to bring one back. It was a nice effort of 32 yards. It was a portent of the historic season to come.  

What made the difference? Why was Nixon so successful where so many other Packer kick returners failed in recent years? Certainly credit must go to Bisaccia, who got the return team blocking more effectively, and must have been the one who ultimately picked Nixon to take the place of the ineffective Rodgers.  

But In reviewing many of the kickoff returns from last season, the difference between Rodgers and Nixon seemed to be the latter’s ability to spot the open lane and cut to it sharply. There were open pathways for Rodgers as well, but most of the time he either completely missed them, or couldn’t get to them on time. The importance of timing on kick returns cannot be overstated. The gaps in the coverage only stay open for a second. The returner must reach them as they appear and burst through them in perfect sync. Nixon was a master at that. 

His vision is better than his speed. He ran a 4.42 forty yard dash at his NFL workout. On his 93 yard return against the Dolphins in week sixteen. He cuts sharply through the first gap straight up the middle at his own twenty yard line, then shifts on a dime to a lane on the left. By the time Nixon reaches the forty, he is wide open with no one even close. It should have been an easy touchdown. But two Miami players are able to make up enough ground to angle him and bring him down inside the ten. He’s not a burner, but he is quick to the hole and shifty in the hips. 

As we approach the 2023 season, not only is Nixon poised to be the kickoff returner, but at the moment he appears to be penciled in as the slot corner. That has caused more than one Packer fan to take pause.  But other options at that position, such as Rasul Douglas, Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford, don’t seem encouraging either. 

Perhaps the doubters should take a moment to appreciate what Nixon has accomplished in the last year. He came from out of nowhere to be the best kick returner in the league.  Maybe the next surprise will be coming from out of nowhere to become one of the top slot corners as well.  

After all, number 25 seems to be full of surprises.   

 

 

 

 

 

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Ken Lass is a former Green Bay television sports anchor and 43 year media veteran, a lifelong Packers fan, and a shareholder.

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6 points
 

Comments (23)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Since'61's picture

July 10, 2023 at 06:44 am

Ken - you need to check your stats on Nixon. His 28.08 average kickoff return is not the leading KO return average in franchise history.

In 1967 Travis Williams had a kickoff return average of 41.06 yards on 38 KO returns. That's 13 more yards per KO return and remains the league leading KO return average of all time. Plus Williams returned four kickoffs for TDs in 1967. 2 in one game game against the Cleveland Browns in a 55-7 Packers victory.

Don't get me wrong Nixon had an excellent season in 2022 and he gives us hope for our KO return team in 2023. However, to claim that his KO return average of 28.08 in the highest in franchise history is just flat out incorrect when a player from the same franchise has the all time single season league record average of 41.06 yards per KO return. Do some research. You don't even need to look at another team. Can't believe that you missed Travis Williams 1967 performance when preparing this article. I have rarely complained about the CHTV/AllGBP contributing writers over the last 14 years but C'mon man!

Sorry, but I've come to expect much better from the CHTV contributing writers. Thanks, Since '61

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KenLass's picture

July 10, 2023 at 07:05 am

According to Pro Football Reference, Travis Williams career average on kickoff returns is 26.7, compared to 28.8 for Nixon. Your reference is to a single season for Williams. My error was using Nixon's single season average in 2022 as a career stat. I apologize and have removed the stat from the story.

15 points
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Since'61's picture

July 10, 2023 at 07:20 am

No worries, an understandable error. Remember the "Roadrunner." Thanks, Since '61

9 points
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HawkPacker's picture

July 10, 2023 at 08:52 am

When asked by the media about how he does it or what is your secret, Williams responded with 'just follow the wedge' 'just follow the wedge'. Still remember that line after all these years.

7 points
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lou's picture

July 10, 2023 at 03:45 pm

He not only followed the wedge but busted it many times, they listed him at 210 but up close at practice he looked 230 or better. They listed his 100 yard dash time at 9.3 when Bob Hayes was running 9.1 but I would bet my Shelby Mustang that in full gear on a football field our "Road Runner" would win the 100 yard race. One of the most exciting players to were the Green & Gold.

4 points
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Tundraboy's picture

July 10, 2023 at 10:52 pm

Sure do. Thats why you and I get a bit touchy when Travis is brought up. He was THE gold standard for a returner imo.

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SicSemperTyrannis's picture

July 11, 2023 at 04:55 pm

61, this gets a woohoo!

Facts, + GB production :)

I'm not even worried if Nixon gets the record, I just hope he builds on last year and is excellent with ball security.

As injury prone as returning is, I hope depth takes most of his defensive position and he's used as more of a specialist; I have a lot of hope for our talent there.

We'll see ...

1 points
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TKWorldWide's picture

July 10, 2023 at 07:22 am

With so much drama in the GPG
It’s kinda hard being Snoop D-O-Double G
But yall somehow, some way
Keep comin’ up with funky stories
Nearly every single day

5 points
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LeotisHarris's picture

July 10, 2023 at 08:29 am

Laid back (with my mind on TK and TK on my mind)

3 points
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TKWorldWide's picture

July 10, 2023 at 09:01 am

LOL!

2 points
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T7Steve's picture

July 10, 2023 at 08:20 am

Nixon's a nice story. Hope he continues to raise the bar.

I hope this season is finally about special teams, defense and offence. Not one individual, TEAMS! If that happens, it won't matter who's playing QB, corner, runs back kicks or is on the edge. The TEAM makes everything work.

That might rely a little on coaching but, we have the players to do it this season.

TEAMWORK!

7 points
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RCPackerFan's picture

July 10, 2023 at 08:56 am

Nixon was definitely a surprising player to emerge out of almost nowhere.

It was great seeing him come alive during the season and completely change the look of our special teams.

My question is who will be this year's Nixon?
Who is going to come out of nowhere and be a big time contributor to the team.
There are a quite a few candidates. But I'm looking forward to see who does emerge.

6 points
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SicSemperTyrannis's picture

July 11, 2023 at 05:07 pm

RC, hopefully Nixon is this year's Nixon. But I do know what you mean. I'm not worried if we get 4 wins or 11, that's the range most are predicting. I don't know why player effort was less than 100% last season; I can guess but I can't know. Correcting that, every down every game all season long will do WONDERS for all the intangibles going forward, likely for a decade +.

There's about 3 WRs that can step up by a factor of huge, two TEs, maybe 3 RBs (+ #33 having a stellar year however he's used) and of course JL10 will have his chance to "emerge."

None of it goes well without a dominant O line. Of course our defensive line gets to step up, too ...

Quay Walker, Wyatt and Cox could ALL be beasts like we hope to see out of Luke Ness Monster! I'm reminded of Howard Cosell, with "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." Certainly this year will be a surprise, no matter what happens :)

Even if somebody here predicts it right!

GPG

1 points
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dobber's picture

July 10, 2023 at 08:59 am

I won't piss on what Nixon did in 2022. It was fun to watch. He has remarkable vision and an innate ability to make the first guy miss (punts). After he burned Miami and Minnesota, not only did Detroit directional kick him to try to neutralize him, they also beat him up. He was taking shots in that game. In the end, returners can be mostly neutralized...nobody is going to give him a chance in 2023, and if they do, it's likely a kicking error.

The question is: where is his greatest value to the Packers? He was given a modest one-year contract with plenty of performance incentives--virtually all of which deal with defensive snaps and benchmarks. He was brought back just as much to shore up the CB room and take the pressure off the recovery of Eric Stokes as he was to return kicks. Very little discussion in this article about his defensive play, which was mostly good.

10 points
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coolhand's picture

July 10, 2023 at 10:16 am

I thought near the end of the game when he got concussed that the Detroit player targeted his head and hit him late as well with no call.

9 points
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SicSemperTyrannis's picture

July 11, 2023 at 05:16 pm

Dobber, it's really interesting to see the speculation about the league changing the rule due to Nixon. I think that would have happened regardless. How will it change his production? He's said it won't change his game; I'm not sure that's wise. I'd love to see all kicking duties handled by one guy, with the holder and long snapper being the backup K & P. If it "only" frees up one roster spot that could help IMMENSELY ...

2 points
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Leatherhead's picture

July 10, 2023 at 09:32 am

There were over 1000 kicks returned last year, 6 of them for TDs. That's going to boil down to any given team returning a kick for a TD about every 6 or 7 years. In between, let's just see how many turnovers, injuries, and penalties we take .

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croatpackfan's picture

July 10, 2023 at 10:01 am

My little experience with football tells me that all achievements are never individual, they are all team's achievement. Of course that there is difference in how much each part (player) of the team contribute to achievement, regarding talent, experience & preparation, but team as totality is as good as it's weakest part (on O, D and ST).

Also, high productive players can elevate and somewhat hide some shortcomings of the weakest links. All that needs to take into account when we are talking about one player performance.

We should not forget coaching influence through training and practicing. Add to that ability of the coach to clearly explain role of each player, so that there will be no misunderstandings what someone has to do, you'll get "well oiled machine" capable of highest achievements.

Coaching influence was so obviously visible very shortly after Rich Bisaccia take over the ST unit. And negative influence was visible through stubborn use of Amari Rodgers as KR & PR.

So, it is nice for any person when he is recognized and achieve some significant goals for himself, but we need to keep in mind that behind that achievement there is the team that enable that person to win.

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lou's picture

July 10, 2023 at 03:51 pm

Very good points about team work being the key to Special Teams and a good point by Leatherhead in reference to far less kicks returned for TD's because of rule changes for one and the fact that few starters play Special Teams anymore. I replied to a comment on "The Wedge" which is a good example, that was outlawed several years ago and when Lombardi was the Coach 4 of his best starting players made up "The Wedge", including Gregg, Skoronski and Kramer.

3 points
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SicSemperTyrannis's picture

July 11, 2023 at 05:18 pm

Outlaw the wedge :(

#4 says just put 'em in dresses ...

1 points
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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2023 at 10:13 am

Keisean also decided to use his on-national-tv lambeau leap to throw up gang signs, too.
Since edited out of most clips.. but still able to catch a flash if you dig hard enough.

I hope he stays out of trouble.

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Packer_Fan's picture

July 10, 2023 at 04:24 pm

Good story. And good for Nixon. I hope he does well again this year and gets a contract that sets him up for life. He deserves it.

2 points
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Ferrari-Driver's picture

July 10, 2023 at 11:37 pm

Sometimes a player can have a heck of a year and then never come close to repeating the success. I remember in 1984 when the Packers drafted a defensive back in the 5th round named Tom Flynn who intercepted 9 passes as our free safety his rookie year and made the pro bowl. Many of us fans thought we drafted the next Bobbie Dillon, but Tom only made about four more interceptions during his entire career with the Packers and New York Giants and was never close to outstanding season he had as a rookie with the Packers.

Nixon had a heck of a first season with the Packers and here is hoping that is just the start of a string of outstanding seasons.

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