RB Rabih Abdullah (with ball) was one of a handful of backs and receivers to get a shot at the kickoff return job
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished 20th in the league in kickoff return average in 1999, but even that number is deceiving. In the more complete statistic of 'average kickoff drive start' (a long but self-explanatory title), the Bucs finished next to last. Tampa Bay's offense averaged a starting point of the 25.5-yard line after kickoffs last year.
This summer, Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy made a point of saying that had to change. On Tuesday, the team devoted its entire afternoon practice to the topic.
That meant kickoff return after kickoff return for a solid hour, all under the critical eye of Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano. In four seasons, Marciano has helped mold the Buccaneers' overall special teams unit into one of the league's best, but he passionately wants to fix the one chink in the armor, the return game.
To that end, the Buccaneers are focusing on finding one player to handle the kickoff returns in 2000, and one player only. Last year, six different players had at least one kickoff return for Tampa Bay.
At least that many tried their hand at winning the job on Tuesday, including running backs Aaron Stecker, Warrick Dunn and Rabih Abdullah and receivers Reidel Anthony, Yo Murphy and Karl Williams. While there were more bobbled receptions than Dungy would have liked, the returners actually looked quite explosive across the board.
The team practiced in full pads in order to simulate actual kickoff return contact, but tackling was not encouraged, making it difficult to determine which returns were actually gaining significant yardage. However, Stecker did cause some excitement when he appeared to outrun the coverage on the right sideline.
"Well, Aaron's a slasher," said Dungy of the first-year player who recently earned Offensive MVP honors in the NFL Europe League. "He did a good job of taking the ball, finding those gaps and hitting them. That's what we're looking for.
"This was good for us today, because we want to make some improvement in this area. We'll get some good tape to look at and make some improvement."
Dungy even dismissed the drops without too much hand-wringing. "It's the first day and we really hadn't worked it on the Jugs machine, so that was to be expected," he said. "It was a little rough."
Actually, Stecker's return drew slightly less crowd reaction than a runback by another Buccaneer back: fullback Mike Alstott. Alstott was lined up in his up-back position, as he normally is during the season, and he fielded a short kickoff and made several quick cuts to get near midfield.
"Mike's been on the kickoff return team ever since he's been here," said Dungy. "Generally, he doesn't get the ball kicked to him, but when he does he knows what to do with it."
Of course, the practice was useful for the kickers as well. While the Buccaneers were excellent in kickoff coverage last season, they got only eight touchbacks off the powerful leg of Martin Gramatica and would like to see a consistently deeper kick. Dungy saw those results towards the end of the hour, with Gramatica alternating kicks with punter John Shay.
"Martin and John both got better as the day went on," said Dungy. "The footballs got warmed up a little bit. We're kicking new balls, just like we're going to have to do in the games, and that's a part of it. I thought, for both, their last five kickoffs were good ones." Still, the focus of Tuesday afternoon's work was primarily the return game, and this was the first step in determining who will be back there when the regular season gets underway. While there was no claim staked on the job on Tuesday, the individual efforts of the day could prove important in the battle.
Every time you do (a drill like this) you evaluate," said Dungy. "It's going to come down to who does it in the games. The only problem with that is you're hopeful you don't get too many opportunities in the preseason games to return kickoffs. Some of it, you have to make decisions on what happens out here at practice."
During one of his kickoff returns, WR Karl Williams suffered a lower right leg contusion during a jarring collision and had to limp off the field. He was given treatment on the sideline but was not considered significantly hurt. His availability for Wednesday first practice will be determined in the morning.
T Jason Odom who underwent back surgery last fall and is just now returning to full-contact action, had a lower back strain on Tuesday. He will not practice on Wednesday morning for precautionary reasons but may be available for the evening workout.
Rookie CB Tarig Holman joined the list of players suffering from hamstring strains on Tuesday when he pulled that muscle in his left leg. He will not practice on Wednesday. Nor will James Whalen or Damien Robinson, who are also nursing left hamstring strains.
LB Kinnon Tatum has a right knee strain and is questionable for Wednesday's workout. Fellow LB Shawn Stuckey continues to feel the effects of a right turf toe injury and will not practice on Wednesday. TE Patrick Hape remains day-to-day with his rehabbing right foot.