WR Yo Murphy (white jersey) knows that winning sole possession of the kickoff return job will put him in position for an expanded role in the offense
Last July, a year ago almost to the day, Yo Murphy signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after another season in NFL Europe. He told himself that this was it. He would make it in the NFL, or he would go home and pursue another career. Check that…he didn't just tell himself; he shared it with the media, putting weight behind a sort of self-ultimatum.
And where is Murphy this July, a year later? On Wednesday, he was at One Buccaneer Place, putting in extra time during the last off period for the players before training camp. He was lifting weights, running, catching balls from Eric Zeier in an impromptu get-together on the field.
You see, he did make it. Murphy spent the entire 1999 season on NFL rosters, splitting time between Tampa Bay and Minnesota and primarily fitting in as a kickoff return man. He was so successful in pursuing his goal last year that he has laid down the law for himself again in his second Buccaneer camp. This year, he plans to win sole possession of the kickoff return job.
"I'm excited about it," said Murphy of his upcoming quest. "They told me going into camp that I was the starter (on kickoff return) and that's why they brought me back. That's one of my biggest goals this year – personal goals, that is; the team goal is to win it all. My personal goal is to get that job, and not have people saying, 'Oh, it's a kickoff return, what's going to happen?' When the linemen come down (the sideline) to line up, I want to have them lining up at the thirty, knowing I'm at least going to get to there."
Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy made it clear during the offseason that he wanted to emerge from training camp with a single player designated as the kickoff return man. That job, and the one of punt return, has bounced between a variety of players – Murphy, Karl Williams, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony, Warrick Dunn – over the past few years, with varying results. Dungy feels the team must get more out of its return game, and that stability in that spot will lead to better results.
The team had that quest in mind in January when it re-signed Murphy after his brief stint in Minnesota. After a wave of November injuries, Murphy was released by the Buccaneers on December 2 to make room for an extra quarterback (Scott Milanovich). He was quickly snapped up by the Vikings, who were looking to spice up their own sputtering return game. Murphy took the challenge with Minnesota, but never really left Tampa in his heart. He left all of his possessions in his Tampa home for the remainder of the season, then re-signed with the Buccaneers on February 2.
"I can't say I wouldn't have gone anywhere else, but I can't say that I would have," said Murphy. "It wasn't something where I was saying, 'I just can't wait to play in 2000.' It was, 'I want to go back to the Bucs.' I don't know what I would have done.
"It ended up working out and this is where I want to be. I know I can help this team win, and I like being around everybody, the coaches. I like how people work hard together here."
Murphy felt just as strongly about his NFL destination last summer, when he was preparing for his ultimate shot. There were other suitors after he turned in yet another strong season in Europe, but he decided on the Buccaneers just two weeks before training camp.
"I thought about it long and hard when I got back from the World League, my decision on where to go," said Murphy. "When I came here, they weren't offering me a signing bonus or anything. They just said, 'Come and give it a shot.' Other teams offered me a signing bonus, but it was my last shot, so it was a long-term goal. Five or 10 thousand dollars isn't going to make a difference if I don't make the team, because I'm done.
"When I signed with the Bucs, it was all because I thought I could be there in September. I thought I could make the opening-day roster. And that was it. If I didn't stay here, then I was done. I told my agent, we can still be friends but I didn't want to take any more calls."
Murphy made the team after returning a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against New England in the pre-season. However, he was inactive for three of the first five games and saw little action in a fourth. It wasn't until October that he got his shot as the primary kickoff return man, which he held for roughly five games. He was inactive for one more contest before his release.
This year, his goal is a bit loftier. The plan is to avoid those inactive Sundays, and thus potentially expand his role.
"Last year, I was inactive every game," said Murphy. "The big thing is, you want to suit up for every game so if anything happens, you can step in. Receiver's a tough position, people get hurt all the time. So if I'm dressed for every game because I'm the starting kickoff returner, I'll also get more chances at receiver."
If he wins the return job, it will be because he has established himself as the steady presence the team desires in that role. The Buccaneers would love to break their kickoff return jinx – in 24 regular seasons, no Buccaneer has returned a kickoff for a touchdown – but they are more concerned with getting constant production. The thought is that Murphy can provide that because he is, as the coach's cliché goes, a 'north-and-south' runner.
"I think (my strength) is north-and-south," said Murphy. "They know that I'm not trying to avoid contact. I don't *like to get hit – I don't think anybody likes it – but I don't think about it. Wherever they say the return is going to go, I'm going to go full speed. If someone's there and I can't avoid him, then I'm going to try to run through him."
In the category of 'too-much-of-a-good-thing,' however, Murphy believes this strength can also be his main weakness.
"My biggest problem is, sometimes I get going too much upfield," he explained. "I have to learn how to be a little more patient at times. If it's a right or left return, sometimes I don't let the hole develop because I'm so busy trying to go north and south. I worked on it a little bit this offseason, watched some film on it. As camp gets closer and closer I'm going to watch more film and start catching kicks from Martin (Gramatica) and simulating different returns. I would say my biggest 'minus' in returning kicks is being too aggressive sometimes."
Fittingly, he's pursuing that problem aggressively, fine-tuning his game at One Buccaneer Place while most of the team is getting in a final sabbatical. "I went home for about five days and had a football camp, and I didn't do anything," said Murphy. "I didn't lift or run, so I decided I better do a little double-time.
"I'm just trying to get ready – it's a big year. There are a lot of expectations, bringing in all the free agents, the Super Bowl's here, and I'm trying to get the kickoff return job and make history. So I'm doing all I can." *