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  1. #1
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    Returning kicks remains a riddle on special teams

    By Jim Thomas
    ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
    11/02/2006


    First J.R. Reed, then Kevin Curtis, and now Tony Fisher.

    As Rams coach Scott Linehan jokingly put it, "We've been kind of doing the 'Rolodex' return man thing here lately."

    Join the club. Tony Horne last returned a kickoff for St. Louis in 2000, and the Rams have been looking for an effective replacement ever since.

    From 2001 through 2005, no fewer than eight players returned at least 10 kickoffs in a season for the Rams, a list that ranges from A (David Allen) to W (Terrence Wilkins). Five others had cameo appearances, including Dre' Bly, Troy Edwards and who could forget? Yo Murphy.
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    But the results have been the same: not very good. Since Horne's departure, the Rams have finished no better than 15th in the NFL in kickoff return average, and usually a lot worse. Last season, the team ranked 23rd; in 2004, the Rams were tied for 31st.

    Unfortunately for the Rams, they are on a similar track this season. They are averaging 19.9 yards per kickoff return, which ranks 28th in the NFL, and have had only one return longer than 29 yards this season.

    "We're still trying to find that guy," Linehan said.

    But there are only so many kick return options on the roster, and they have been just about exhausted. Street free agent Willie Ponder, a returner-wide receiver, visited the Rams on Tuesday but wasn't signed. For now, Linehan believes any upgrade Ponder brings as a return man is outweighed by the fact that he doesn't add much on coverage units and wouldn't see the field at wide receiver.

    So, Linehan appears to be taking a different tack, emphasizing execution by the return unit as a whole.

    "I think by doing a better job as a unit, that guy will start to surface more," he said. "It's easy to get a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction when things aren't going well, and start maybe searching for answers personnel-wise. We've done that somewhat. ... We've given some other guys an opportunity to maybe step up and prove themselves. It hasn't happened yet."



    Reed handled return chores in the first five games, but after having difficulties on a couple of kickoffs in windy conditions in Green Bay, he hasn't dressed the past two games.

    Curtis was used against Seattle but lost a costly fumble that led to a go-ahead touchdown for the Seahawks. Fisher got his chance in San Diego, and it looks like he will get another chance Sunday against Kansas City.

    Reed is puzzled and frustrated by his fall from favor.

    "It (stinks)," Reed said. "You come here, you've got expectations. I want to play. You get set down, and you don't know what the real (reason is). ... I really don't know. I just work here."

    Reed ranks 30th in the NFL with a 20.2 return average. But he does have the Rams' longest kickoff return of the season, 40 yards, and he has much more experience on returns than Curtis or Fisher.

    "I thought I was doing real good," Reed said. "All of a sudden, we get a windy game and I'm deactivated. So I don't know if it's the wind or the injuries."

    What about those two bobbled kickoffs in Green Bay?

    "I only bobbled one, which I had to chase down," he said. "The other one fell short with the wind. So if you're blaming the returner, then I guess that could be it. But I don't see how that could be on the returner's head.

    "The other team, the Packers, put William Henderson up there to catch (short kickoffs). Because it went short, they put a guy up there. We didn't do that."

    Linehan said he met Friday with Reed and explained to him that what happened in Green Bay was not the issue.

    "It's nothing he's done," Linehan said. "He just needs to continue to work at it, and if he gets another opportunity here sooner or later, take advantage of it. ... But we haven't given up on him."

    Because of injuries in the secondary, the Rams signed safety Dwaine Carpenter after the Green Bay game. He has dressed instead of Reed against Seattle and San Diego. Even though the injury issues have cleared up, particularly in the case of cornerback Fakhir Brown, Carpenter has performed well enough on special teams to keep playing.

    Fisher, meanwhile, averaged 20.3 yards on six kickoff returns against San Diego. Except for two returns as a rookie in 2002, those were his first returns in a game that counted since high school.

    "Watching it on tape, you can tell we're maybe one or two blocks away," Fisher said. "There's a lot of opportunities; we've just got to finish the plays a little bit better."

    Linehan wants improved blocking as well as better timing between the wedge and the return man.

    "Some of that's my fault because I've been moving returners around," Linehan said. "One of the things we need to strive for is to try to keep a consistent returner there so we can get our timing down. It's like anything else. You keep changing quarterbacks, that's not necessarily the answer."

    It sounds like Linehan wants to put the Rolodex away, perhaps in favor of Fisher. Against San Diego, Linehan said, "Tony was doing exactly what we wanted him to do."


  2. #2
    general counsel's Avatar
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    Re: Returning kicks remains a riddle on special teams

    The entire topic is a red herring to me. All i want is a guy who wont fumble the ball. I dont care very much about not breaking big ones very often. We have many many problems on this team holding us back from being a championship caliber squad and i would postulate that kickoff return man isnt one of them.

    Blocks in the back kill you field position wise. Fumbles can cost you games (see kevin curtis). With the exception of a few terrific guys, how many teams have top notch kickoff returners and even when they do, the blocking is still critical. The assumption that kickoff return average is attributable solely to the returner is as foolish as blaming/crediting the running back exclusively without looking at his O line for his yards per carry average.

    Our special teams are dramatically improved this year. Our defense is holding us back from being a championship team, not our kick return situation.

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  3. #3
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    Re: Returning kicks remains a riddle on special teams

    but if you look when the rams offense has had the ball to start beyond the 30 this year, they have been almost scoring at will. when we start at lets say behind the 25, we struggle moving the ball..

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    Re: Returning kicks remains a riddle on special teams

    We sure didnt look like we were scoring at will in the second half of the seattle game and we had some pretty good field position there.

    Again, i am not suggesting that i wouldnt like better field position, but if you look at the difference between starting at the 23 and at the 32, i cant believe we are going to win or lose a single game off that difference, especially in the context of all the issues on defense.

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