WR Mark Jones will handle both return duties for the Bucs against Buffalo
They may seem like similar tasks, or even two aspects of the same job.
For the men charged with performing them, however, returning punts and returning kickoffs in the NFL are two very disparate challenges. They start with the same concept and require some of the same skills, but diverge rapidly over such issues as trajectory, space, expectations and – let's be honest – courage.
A kickoff returner in the NFL fields a parabolic, end-over-end kick that doesn't force him to raise his eye level too much above horizontal. He catches the football with at least one blocker right in front of him and usually about 20 yards of open space awaiting his footsteps. His first job is to build up a head of steam, and his best bet is to pick one seam and hit it as hard as he can.
A punt returner usually fields a high, hanging kick that looks like it's falling off the top of a high shelf. It's often plummeting at him nose-down. His neck is craned back, giving him no view of the field in front of him. His other senses may help him in determining how close the tacklers are, but he can't know for sure until he makes the catch and pulls his eyes down. His job starts with uncertainty and he often has to make a sudden move right after the catch just to get anything at all out of the return.
Mark Jones can do both of those jobs, and he will Sunday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is much more experienced at the more perilous punt-return job, but he has handled kickoffs a few times in the past and has spent this past week preparing to take on that duty, with Torrie Cox to be held out of Sunday's game against Buffalo. He scored on an 82-yard kickoff return in college at Tennessee, and he thinks he can succeed just as well on the NFL level, beginning Sunday.
"I do feel confident," said Jones. "You just have to believe in the guys up front and believe in the scheme. What the coach has told me to do is just run. Don't be tiptoeing – just run. That's what I'm going to do on Saturday – just run."
Jones knows he can succeed on punt returns, having already spent a season in the NFL doing just that. He'll try to prove he can do just as well at its loosely-related cousin. Perhaps in studying the differences between those two return jobs he will perform on Sunday, Jones can see a parallel for the unpredictable way in which his NFL career has begun.
"The main difference is that you have more time to see how everything is going to unfold on kickoff return," said Jones. "You see the seams open up and the holes close. You can see that each man in front of you is doing what he was supposed to do. On a punt return, you sort of have to trust that your guys will give you room while you catch the ball."
See, in a way Jones' 2004 rookie season began like a punt return. He kept his eye on the ball and did his job, but it was difficult to figure out exactly what was going on around him. After one sudden move, he found success.
From there, it was like a kickoff return. He could see his path laid out in front of him and he simply attacked it at full speed and got as much out of it as he could.
Jones was the first of three seventh-round draft picks made by Tampa Bay in 2004. The Bucs loved that rookie class and eventually found a way to keep all five men they drafted in Rounds 1-6. They also quietly loved what Jones could do for them.
When the decision was made to keep Frank Murphy and his kickoff return capabilities for the last receiver spot, the Bucs tried to keep Jones around on the practice squad. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the New York Giants had an eye out for Jones, and they snapped him up for their active roster when the Bucs made him one of their last cuts. Jones won the Giants' punt-return duties and held them for the entire season.
Now, twenty-one months into his NFL career, Jones hasn't really found a trust level within the business. Too often, things have changed suddenly and gone contrary to what he understood to be the plan, in ways he couldn't control. As a result, he has fallen back on his faith to keep himself level. He has adopted as his touchstone Romans 3:4, the Bible verse that tells him how to handle his dealings with team administrators.
Romans 3:4 reads: Let God be true and every man a liar.
That's not quite as harsh as it sounds. In effect, Jones is reminding himself that it is better to put his trust in God than in the words of any particular man.
"I just put it in God's hands," he said. "I told myself I'm not going to trust in what people say. I'd rather put my trust in God. I kept that close to my heart when it came to dealing with what I'm told by people in the business. I told myself not to be moved by what they say or what is being written about me."
Most recently, Jones thought he had won the New York Giants' punt return job, or rather held onto it after filling that role last year. He was injured for most of the preseason but had returned for the final warm-up game and performed well, returning six punts for 61 yards.
But things changed suddenly when the Giants signed Chad Morton on September. Morton got the job and Jones was cut on the same day.
"I planned on winning that job," he said, without any obvious bitterness. "I actually thought I won it after the New England game based on what the coaches said to me. But you can't put your faith and trust in everything you hear, that's one thing I learned. I just had to take it and go with it."
Fortunately, there was a covetous suitor lurking around the waiver wire. No surprise, it was the Buccaneers, who saw an opportunity to rectify a miscalculation from a year ago and jumped at it. Jones was a Buccaneer by September 7 and had the primary punt return role approximately 11 seconds later.
"I was definitely excited when my agent told me that they had called," said Jones. "At first I was a little worried because I didn't know how they would accept me coming back here. Not in a bad way…I just wondered how I would be accepted by the players. But I was definitely excited to be back here. I knew it was going to be tough to learn the offense again, because I had finally learned the Giants' offense. But I think I've already forgotten that and gotten this one built into my mind again."
The Bucs aren't messing around this time. After giving him the punt return job in the season opener, they immediately turned to Jones for kickoffs, too, when Cox was ruled out for Game Two.
Jones is one of seven receivers the Bucs' have on their roster, and five of them have less than two years of NFL experience. One of those five is established star Michael Clayton, but Jones joins Edell Shepherd, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell as young and fairly unproven options for the offense. Jones is obviously behind those other three in terms of understanding the Bucs' offense, but he does have one significant advantage. The return job, when it's his, guarantees him a spot on the 45-man active list on game day.
In the opener, the Bucs kept five receivers up, as the established trio of Clayton, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard was joined by Shepherd and Jones. Shepherd played a little bit; Jones was not used on offense. That may not change any time soon for Jones, but he's determined to prove that he is more than just a return man, and his active status on game day may eventually give him that chance.
"It's great to be a special teams guy, but if you can solidify yourself at a receiver spot, one of the four guys, that's a goal of mine," he said. "And I'm not going to wait until the offseason to try to master that; I'm trying to do it now."
On Friday, after the Bucs completed their last full-speed practice of the week in preparation for the Buffalo game, Jones joined Shepherd, Russell and Warren for some overtime work with Wide Receivers Coach Richard Mann. All four of the young receivers are eager to get more playing time. In Jones' case, he's looking to solidify his current position, because he would prefer not to feel the same uncertainty in his career that he feels when awaiting the ball on a punt return.
His most recent sudden change reminded him how tenuous his situation can be.
"It happened fast," said Jones of the move back to Tampa. "As soon as you think one thing, the next day it's something else."