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Friday, October 26, 2007
Many teams getting their kicks on returns

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

In the midst of an otherwise miserable season for the New York Jets, Leon Washington has been one of the few bright spots. The second-year tailback leads the NFL in average yards per kickoff return among players with 10 or more runbacks (33.2 yards), and he is the only man in the league with two kickoff returns for touchdowns.

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• Hall punishment coming?
• Jackson's future unclear
• Spicer's breakout season
• How will Jags respond?
• Tampa wideouts catching on
• Barber over Jones in Dallas?
• Chad still hanging on
• Baxter on the rebound
• Bell on the move
• Giants off and running
• Davis sells part of Raiders
• The List
• Stat of the Week
• Stat of the Weak
• Punts
• The Last Word

Beyond measuring a hair under 5-foot-8, the fact that the mighty-mite Washington holds such a lofty status through the first seven weekends is remarkable on a couple of fronts. First, he landed the job as the full-time kickoff returner only because the team's Pro Bowl specialist, 2006 league leader Justin Miller, suffered a season-ending right knee injury Sept. 16. And second, Washington has enjoyed only modest success in the past on kickoff returns.

As a fourth-round selection in the 2006 draft, Washington averaged only 13.2 yards on six runbacks his rookie year. And in his four seasons at Florida State, he logged just 29 kickoff returns, although one was for a touchdown (in 2002).

But this has been what the injured Miller termed "a monster season" so far for the little man with such obvious big-play return abilities. Washington has scored on 98-yard runbacks against Miami on Sept. 23 and against the New York Giants on Oct. 7.

Then again, it's been a pretty big season for return men across the league.

"People are 5 or 6 yards deep [in the end zone] and they're bringing it out because they feel they can go all the way," said New England Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who in the opener against the Jets set a league record with a 108-yard kickoff return for a score. "You watch the 'SportsCenter' highlights on Sunday night, and it sure seems like every week there's at least one return [for a touchdown]."

That's not quite true, because there were no kickoff returns for touchdowns in Weeks 2 and 6. Still, Hobbs' premise that there seem to have been more returns for scores in 2007 is valid, both in terms of perception and reality.

There have been 11 kickoffs returned for scores in 2007, already two more than in the entire 2006 season and only one fewer than for all of 2005. Extend the current pace over the course of an entire 256-game regular-season schedule and it projects to 27 touchdowns on kickoff returns. That would easily top the 18 touchdowns tallied on kickoff returns in 1998, the most since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.

But it's not only kickoff return men who are scoring in 2007. Led by the incredible Devin Hester of Chicago, who has two punt returns for touchdowns to go with his one score on a kickoff, there have been seven touchdowns on punt returns. The combined projected scores on all kick returns, 44, would also be the most since 1978. The current mark for touchdowns on kick and punt returns under the 16-game format is 39 in 2002. Here are the previous top 10 seasons since 1978:

Return To Glory
Year Kickoffs Punts Total
2002 17 22 39
1998 18 16 34
1994 16 16 32
2003 13 18 31
2000 15 15 30
1997 14 15 29
1999 13 16 29
2004 17 11 28
2006 9 15 24
1992 6 17 23

Forty-four returns for scores would be only one fewer than the league experienced in the 2005 and 2006 seasons combined.

Indeed, the league seems to be in a Devin Hester state of mind.

"I do think there is what you'd call a 'Hester Syndrome' or a 'Hester Mind-set,' certainly," said 10-year veteran returner Allen Rossum of Pittsburgh, who has seven career returns for touchdowns, including a 98-yard kickoff return for a score on Sept. 23, his first touchdown since 2004. "With what he's done, and in a really short period of time, Hester has put a lot of emphasis back in the importance of the return game. Success breeds success, you know. And this is a copycat league. So, now, everyone wants their own [version] of Devin Hester. And there are a lot of players who want to do what he does, too.

"It sort of goes in cycles. Right now, he's the man pedaling the cycle."

There aren't many return men, though, like Hester, who in only 23 games has nine returns for scores -- five on punts, three on kickoffs and one on a missed field goal.

But that hasn't stopped teams from trying to find, or even create, a duplicate.

Cleveland unearthed Joshua Cribbs as an undrafted free agent in 2005, a year before Hester entered the NFL, and has developed the former Kent State star into one of the league's premier two-way returners. Jerome Mathis of Houston, when healthy, is a Pro Bowl-caliber return man. Before he suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sunday, Mark Jones of Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in kickoff and punt returns, the only player in the NFL to do so. Buffalo quicksilver returner Roscoe Parrish has a punt runback for a touchdown already this season and also had one last season. And then there are veterans such as Rossum and St. Louis' Dante Hall, who is injured.

"If you don't have a good return man," said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, "you're always looking to get one."

Newsome did in this year's draft, investing a third-round choice on Yamon Figurs, who is averaging 29.9 yards on 12 kickoff returns; on 12 punt returns, he's averaging 12 yards, with one touchdown.

And he isn't the only one.

In the 2007 draft, teams selected Ted Ginn Jr. (Miami, first round), Jacoby Jones (Houston, third), Ryne Robinson (Carolina, fourth) and Steve Breaston (Arizona, fifth), principally because of their return skills. Figurs, Breaston and Robinson rank among the top 10 in either kickoff or punt return average for players with more than 10 runbacks. Minnesota first-round tailback Adrian Peterson, the leading rusher in the NFL, also rates No. 9 in kickoff return average.

Leon Washington
The Jets' Leon Washington has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season and averaged 33.2 yards per kickoff return.

"Returning kickoffs, it's a different kind of running," Peterson said. "The field is a lot more wide open. And so there is more potential for a long play. You read the field, hit a seam and break through it, and you can be in the clear, out in the open. Then it's just a race."

The fact that more return men are winning the sprint to the end zone in 2007 is attributable to several factors, and not just the emphasis teams have placed on developing return men. Typically, there are more returns for touchdowns early in a season, because special-teams coverage units undergo considerable turnover from one season to the next, and it generally takes four or five games for those units to mesh.

But there has been such a spate of injuries at this early juncture of the season, including many to core special-teams players, that it has adversely impacted kickoff and punt coverage units and resulted in a lack of cohesion on those teams. Coaches comprise their 45-man active list for each week's game cognizant of the need to have several guys available specifically for special teams. But the trickle-down effect of injuries in general, combined with the loss of special-teams players to ailments, makes that task more difficult.

"There are weeks where we've really scrambled, been in a real panic, believe me," said one special-teams coordinator who has been down as many as three core coverage players on some weeks. "I mean, you can't kick it away [from the return man] every time, you know?"

Actually, the Philadelphia Eagles did just that on Sunday afternoon, using squib kickoffs and punts out of bounds to keep the ball out of the hands of Hester, who for the first time in his professional career registered zero return yards of any kind. Then again, Philadelphia won the battle but lost the war, dropping a 19-16 decision.

Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, whose special teams surrendered 314 return yards to Hester in the teams' first meeting on Sept. 30, joked that he would order his kickers to boot the ball into Lake Michigan this coming Sunday to keep it from the Bears' star. The chances are, though, that if Hester doesn't get to the end zone on Sunday, at least one NFL return man will score over the weekend.

It's been that kind of season.

"There's definitely a take-it-to-the house mentality," said Hobbs of New England. "Every week, the return bomb is ticking, just waiting to explode."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.