Back in his early days in Seattle, WR Joey Galloway made an instant impact in the punt return role
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head into the 2004 season without their all-time leader in a major statistical category, a player who had been with the team for the better part of a decade.
And we're not talking about Warren Sapp.
Sapp actually departs without the Bucs' career sack record, having finished 2003 with 77 QB takedowns, just 1.5 less than team leader Lee Roy Selmon, Tampa Bay's lone Hall of Famer. Rather, the player of whom we speak is wide receiver Karl Williams, released by the Buccaneers on March 2 and recently signed by the Arizona Cardinals. Around just one year less than Sapp, Williams struck a much lower profile but did leave Tampa with several Buc records, including the all-time lead in punt return yards (2,279) and return touchdowns (five).
So the question is, who will return punts for the Bucs in 2004? It's a good bet the team would have been looking for a new option regardless – they gave Tim Wansley a crack at the job early in 2003 and utilized Reggie Barlow late in the year – but there will be no Williams to fall back on in 2004.
Historically, Williams will be tough to replace. He has five of the seven return touchdowns, punt or kickoff, in team history and almost as many punt return yards as the second and third-place men on that list combined. As for the team's return game in recent years, however, there is plenty of room for improvement. Tampa Bay ranked 26th in the league in punt return average last year and 15th in 2002.
The Buccaneers do have an intriguing punt return candidate on the roster now, one with the potential to be as scary in that role as any player in team history.
That man is Joey Galloway, sometimes billed as the fastest man in football. When the Bucs acquired Galloway from Dallas in exchange for Keyshawn Johnson last Friday, the main purpose was to add speed to a receiving corps that leaned heavily to big men. However, Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen hinted almost immediately, in his first post-trade discussion of Galloway, that the team's new receiver could help out in several capacities.
"We think he's going to be a great complement to our offense as well as the other ways we devise to utilize his talents during this season," said Allen.
It takes just a quick glance at Galloway's career statistics to see that he is a legitimate threat in the return game.
In nine NFL seasons, Galloway has returned 116 punts and averaged 10.3 yards per try, though he has rarely been his team's primary man for the job. As a rookie with Seattle in 1995, he averaged 10.0 yards on 36 returns and scored his first touchdown in that manner. Since, he has never done it more than 25 times in a season, though his total of 20 just last year was the third-highest of his career.
Two years ago, Galloway returned 15 punts for Dallas, averaging 12.3 yards per runback, with a long of 71. He had an 89-yarder in 1995, an 88-yarder in 1996 and a 74-yarder in 1998. His speed made him an immediate threat in the return game in '95, and nothing has changed in a decade in the league. Not even Galloway's willingness to take on the job.
In fact, the new Buc's enthusiastic reaction to the idea has to be seen as a strong indication that he will get a crack at it.
"I'm coming in extremely open-minded. I will let them know that I would love to do it. I don't know the situation with the punt returners in Tampa right now, but I am extremely available to do that, and really just want the opportunity to help the team win."
When Allen was asked more directly if Galloway would be used as a return man, he in turn answered more directly than one might expect in March. Allen said the Bucs definitely plan on using Galloway on punts, though perhaps not as the primary return man.
"That's why I talked about other ways that we plan on utilizing his rare talent, and a punt returner would absolutely be in that category," said Allen.
It is not immediately obvious who would be the primary return man if Galloway is used as more of a change of pace. Williams is gone and Barlow is an unrestricted free agent. Wansley is coming off a season-ending hamstring injury and none of the team's young receivers is an obvious choice.
Perhaps the draft will impact the final decision, or the team will dip once again into free agency to provide an answer. The question may not get a good answer until training camp, or perhaps the early part of the season. Still, it appears as if at least part of the answer may have arrived from Dallas just the other day.