WR Yo Murphy, who had a 93-yard kickoff return TD last August, hopes to have another strong pre-season
Just around the corner for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is training camp, a crucial three weeks in which roster spots and starting slots can be won or lost. Realistically, however, the Bucs are coming off the finest season in team history, have all but one starter back under contract and sport only five players over 30 years old. That suggests little turnover in the starting lineup.
There are, however, more than 22 jobs on a football team, and two very crucial ones will indeed be contested hotly in training camp. The Buccaneers are looking for a punt returner and a kickoff returner, which could possibly be the same person.
They're not scanning the waiver wire, however; they're looking within their own roster. And they're not exactly shopping in the budget aisle, either. Among the players from which the returner(s) will be found are:
· WR Karl Williams. Statistically, Williams is one of the top punt returners in NFL history. On 89 career punt runbacks, Williams has averaged 12.4 yards per return, challenging for the best rate in league annals. When Williams got his 75th career return in 1999 and qualified for the all-time chart, he briefly stood atop the career list. He also owns a 22.5-yard kickoff return average and two of the five punt return touchdowns in Buccaneer history.
· WR Jacquez Green. Though he has less career returns (53) and thus does not qualify for the league's all-time list, Green also has a 12.4-yard career punt return average. In Green's first regular-season NFL game, at Green Bay on 9/13/98, he ran a Packer punt back 95 yards for a score, the longest return in Buccaneer history. He has a 20.7-yard average on 20 career kickoff returns. As a rookie, Green averaged 15.1 yards per punt return and was just edged out for the NFL lead in that category by Dallas' Deion Sanders.
· WR Reidel Anthony. In 1998, Anthony settled in as the team's primary kickoff returner during his second NFL season and promptly compiled a 24.3-yard average on 46 runbacks. That was the second-highest mark in the Tampa Bay record books and the highest by any player with at least 15 returns in a season. He owns an excellent career average of 23.3 yards per kickoff return but has yet to be tried on punts.
· RB Warrick Dunn. In his three NFL seasons, Dunn has primarily been used as a change-of-pace option on punt and kickoff returns. Thus he has just five career punt returns (9.6-yard average) and 15 kickoff returns (20.7 average). However, he is clearly one of the most electrifying open-field runners in team history and he owns a 25-yard punt return and a 34-yard kickoff return in his brief work.
· WR Yo Murphy. Murphy's NFL resume is quite a bit shorter than others, but he didn't need long in Bucs camp last year to catch the eye of the coaching staff with his return ability. He was on and off the inactive list early in the '99 season, but took over the primary kickoff return duties during midseason and went on to average 21.9 yards on 14 runbacks. Included in that stint was a 55-yard return against the New Orleans Saints on November 7. An injury crunch led to a Buccaneer roster turnover in November that cost Murphy his spot, but he immediately landed with the Minnesota Vikings, who were searching for a kickoff returner. He returned to the Bucs as a free agent after the season.
Obviously, the fact that all of the above players have a significant pool of return stats to examine from the past few years indicates that the job has been spread around. According to Head Coach Tony Dungy, that will not be the case in 2000.
"What we'd like to do when we come into the regular season," said Dungy, "is to have a kickoff returner and a punt returner, whether it's the same guy or not. But in the past, we've said, 'This game we're going to use Jacquez because of what we see in their coverage', then the next game we go to Yo and then we go to Karl because of the type of things we want to set up. Maybe we haven't let one guy get in the rhythm returning. What we'd like to do is audition in the pre-season, find a guy for each slot, then go with him."
Dungy hopes that kind of continuity will lead to a return game that is strong all season, thus further improving an already excellent special teams unit. The Bucs were among the league leaders in a variety of kicking categories in 1999, including net punting (6th), gross punting (8th), field goal percentage (9th), opponent punt return average (7th) and opponent kickoff return average (2nd). However, the team ranked only 22nd in punt returns and 20th in kickoff returns despite the above list of accomplished returners.
"That's one of the things we've talked about," said Dungy of the team's renewed emphasis on the return game. "Every year, we've kind of started slowly in the return phase then gotten it going in the later part of the year. But we'd like to get off to a fast start, we'd like to create some field position with our return game. And we've got returners that can do it. We just have to stay away from the penalties and be more consistent in what we're doing. That's the one area of special teams we've never been near the top of the league in. Now with (kicker) Martin (Gramatica), we've been near the top in field goal percentage, we've been near the top in the coverage units, but our return game…for the type of people we have, we've got to get that going a little bit better."
The Bucs recently concluded a four-week series of voluntary summer workouts, and there were repeated kickoff and punt return drills. The real competition for those spots will begin in training camp, but the coaching staff got an early look in June when just about anyone that wanted to try was given an audition.
"We've had Derrick Brooks back there," said Dungy, though, in truth, he dismissed the idea. "Damien Robinson got his shot. My sense is, it's going to be a pretty short-term experiment for Damien, but you never know. We're giving everyone an opportunity."
Sometimes, an opportunity is all a player needs. Ask Murphy. Though Green was his usual explosive self during last year's pre-season, averaging 14.8 yards per punt return and 24.1 yards per kickoff return, Murphy did get a brief chance, and he made the most of it. Against New England on August 28, Murphy returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to help spur a 45-14 Buccaneer win. It was his only kickoff return of the pre-season.
Murphy may hope to make that same impression in this year's camp, because Dungy expects to use that time to close the issue. "We want to get our return game going, and we want to come out of training camp with a couple of guys that we can hang our hats on," the coach said. "We're going to do a little more work on it in the pre-season, emphasize it a little bit more. We want to win the field position game, because we know that with Martin we can get points if we get good field position. So the return game is something we want to spice up."
And nothing adds spice like a little heated competition.