Imagine it's the preseason and you're a veteran kick returner on an NFL team that, in recent months, has added several young players with potentially intriguing return skills. How exactly do you protect your job?
Over the course of four preseason games, your team might send the return unit out 25-30 times. A few runback chances will be lost to fair catches or touchbacks. The remainder of the opportunities will be divvied up between four or five players, and if you're the coach who do you want to see, the veteran you've watched return hundreds of kicks or the rookie who has yet to prove himself?
Now factor in the new kickoff rules of 2011, which are sending touchback numbers skyrocketing, and watch the opportunities dwindle even more. Maybe you get two or three returns. Maybe one of the young kids gets 10, and he breaks one.
Micheal Spurlock of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is just such a veteran. But despite all that, the situation isn't exactly bleak. There is great value, of course, in actually being that proven performer.
A year ago, Spurlock got exactly two punt returns (for an excellent 14.0 yards per) and zero kickoff returns in the preseason. In the regular season, however, he accounted for 72 of the team's 87 combined punt and kickoff returns, a pretty definitive 83% of the overall job. Along the way, he became the first player in team history to record a second kickoff return for a touchdown. That was fitting, as in 2007 he became the first Buc ever to score in such a manner, breaking a 32-year organizational drought. Clifton Smith and Sammie Stroughter later joined the club.
Even more importantly, the return job isn't the only thing keeping Spurlock in the NFL anymore.
A former quarterback at Mississippi, Spurlock first entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Arizona in 2006 and began the difficult conversion to wide receiver. He played one game with the Cardinals as a rookie, seven with the Bucs in 2007 and six between San Francisco and a second Buccaneer stop in 2009. That return to Tampa late in '09 was dramatic; he came back just in time to return a punt for a touchdown that was instrumental in the Bucs' stunning upset of the Super Bowl-bound Saints in New Orleans.
Still, heading into last season he had a career total of four receptions, all from that single game in 2006. It was thus a giant leap forward in Spurlock's career in 2010 when he succeeded in establishing himself as an NFL receiver. He caught 17 passes for 250 yards, among them several of the Bucs' biggest plays of the year. Tampa Bay might not have beaten Cleveland in Week One or Cincinnati in Week Five without Spurlock's timely contributions on offense.
It was a great season for Spurlock, who appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career. He seemed to take himself off that bubble that had loomed over him in every August, and indeed no one would blink an eye if Spurlock retains his spot on the 53-man roster in 2011 simply based on his receiving abilities.
But that doesn't mean he wants to graduate off of the return team. Along with Stroughter, second-year man Preston Parker, rookie Jock Sanders and perhaps a dark horse or two (Anthony Gaitor?), Spurlock is competing once again to be the Buccaneers' primary big-play threat on the punt and kickoff return units. He is obviously the most experienced player in that group, but the Buccaneers are certainly not shy about giving young and unproven players their chances to shine.
It is definitely a friendly competition, but Spurlock wants to win it once again.
"Most definitely, just for the simple fact that this is how I came into the league. This is how I finally got on the field, in kick return and punt return. Every day that I go out there is a competition. There's no hard feelings in our [receivers] room but that's the way it is. That's the only way you get everybody to the highest level and get everybody to play to their top level. Every day that we go out there we're competing and critiquing each other. When we're playing other teams, everybody on the sideline is cheering on whoever's out there.
"But for me it's always a competition and I think everybody in that room feels the same way."
It's easy to understand why a return man would treat every day like a competition. An NFL starter at, say, left tackle or middle linebacker, could go several years without his team adding any serious competitors at his spot. However, it seems like there are intriguing new return options in the building every year. Clifton Smith came out of nowhere in 2008, for instance, a year that Spurlock spent on the Bucs' practice squad. Last year, Parker opened some eyes in the preseason and was given the occasional return during the regular season. This year the Bucs brought in Sanders, the diminutive playmaker from West Virginia, and it's clear that they see the return game as the rookie's most NFL game-ready skill.
"That's the nature of this business; it's why they have the draft every year," said Spurlock. "They have it to bring about turnover. When somebody new is coming in it means somebody old is going out. The veterans that I've been around have always said, 'Protect your job.' That's what you have to do. Each day and every day you have to do it to the best of your ability. When you walk out these doors you need to bring everything you have to protect your job. That's just the way I approach the game and each and every year."
Spurlock has primarily done this on the practice field once again this summer, just like last year. The Bucs have had 11 punt returns, five each by Parker and Sanders and one by Stroughter. There have been only three kickoff return opportunities, but Parker has taken two of them and Sanders one.
The competition for the return job seems like a question without a wrong answer. Again, Spurlock owns three of the 15 punt and kickoff return touchdowns in franchise history and he's third in Buc history with a career average of 25.6 yards per kickoff return. Spurlock narrowly missed setting a new team record last year with 1,129 kickoff return yards, just 18 shy of Bobby Joe Edmonds' 1995 mark of 1,147.
Of course, Stroughter is the Bucs number-one career kickoff return average man, with a mark of 28.8, albeit on just 14 opportunities compared to Spurlock's 68. On the current depth chart right between Spurlock in the first spot and Stroughter in the third is Parker, who got 10 kickoff returns last year and is averaging 8.6 yards per punt return this summer. Sanders has the team's best punt return so far this year, a 21-yarder at Kansas City, and nearly broke his only kickoff return before settling for a 25-yarder.
All four of those players field a lot of kicks in practice, but coaches really want to see what they can do in a game situation.
Unfortunately, the kickoff return opportunities probably won't multiply too much over the next two preseason games, thanks to the rule change that moved the kick from the 30-yard line up to the 35. Buccaneer opponents, in fact, have only one kickoff return through two games, and the poor Chiefs return man who brought the ball out from five yards deep on that one probably didn't get a gold star from his coach.
It's no surprise, of course, that the new rule isn't particularly popular with return men, even if it is designed to reduce injuries.
"They're taking away jobs," said Spurlock. "It's a game-changer. It's a way for you to get a touchdown. It's a way for the kickoff team to get turnovers and turn the whole game around. Hopefully they change the rule, but for now you're seeing guys take it out from eight, nine yards deep. We'll see how much that happens during the season, but in the preseason everybody's trying to figure it out and see what works best. Hopefully we'll get some in Saturday's game. It's just good whenever you get an opportunity to touch the ball. On kickoff return we call it being a playmaker. You've got to go out there and make a play to put your team in a great position to score."
Perhaps the Bucs' kickoff return unit will see some meaningful action on Saturday. Despite the league-wide trend, Dolphins kickers have produced just one touchback on 10 kickoffs so far. Only half of those 10 kicks have been caught in the end zone, and nine have been returned for 207 yards, for an average of 23.0 yards each.
Of course, it's possible that those opportunities still won't go to Spurlock. One can't blame Tampa Bay's coaching staff for wanting to find out as much as it can about Parker, Sanders and the like. Spurlock doesn't waste time thinking about it; rather, he just makes the most of his chances when he gets them.
"I've been in the league long enough that I have stopped worrying about or trying to guess what coaches are going to decide on game day," said Spurlock. "From my point of view, you just take care of your job. You go make plays, put your best self on film and let everything else take care of itself. When you try to figure out what they're trying to do, you mess yourself up. You play the game and let others take care of the business aspect of it."