Flynn's Focus: 1,545 And Counting...

June 17 – Tampa Bay's offense and defense have been the center of most of the offseason hype surrounding the Pewter Pirates, and rightfully so. But it's time to take an in-depth look at Tampa Bay's punt and kick return candidates. Will someone actually unseat PR Karl Williams? Who gives the Bucs the best chance of returning its first kickoff for a touchdown in franchise history? We shed some light on these inquiries and more in this installment of Flynn's Focus.

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Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
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Tampa Bay's offense and defense have been the center of most of the offseason surrounding the Bucs, and deservedly so. But there's a few interesting battles currently being fought on special teams in terms of the punt and kick return men. These positions will be the center of attention in this installment of Flynn's Focus.

In their seven years of existence, the Carolina Panthers have returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns. In 26 years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have yet to return their first kickoff for a score.

Now, if that isn't the most embarrassing statistic in the National Football League, I don't know what is. Well, actually, there's that whole cold weather thing, but let's save that for another column.

You'd think the Bucs would have returned a kickoff for a touchdown by now, even if it were by accident. After all, they've returned 1,545 of them. You'd think Tampa Bay would have been lucky enough to find their way into the end zone on at least one kickoff return, so why haven't they?

"I don't know the answer to that," said new Bucs special teams coach Richard Basaccia. "We're not trying to concern ourselves with the past. We've watched a bunch of tape and investigated a bunch of players. We're going to try to set an identity here on kickoff returns."

Former Bucs special teams coach Joe Marciano, who accepted a job in the same capacity with the Houston Texans earlier in the offseason, experimented with several players at the position during his six years in Tampa Bay, but failed to find one that could end this dreadful streak.

Once he was hired, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden filled his team's vacant special teams coaching job with Bisaccia. While this is his first coaching job in the NFL, Bisaccia coached running backs and special teams at Ole Miss the past three seasons. He also held a similar position at Clemson for five seasons.

While Marciano's special teams unit proved to be productive at times, they were inconsistent at others, but Bisaccia feels good about the group he inherited from Marciano and upgraded even further during the offseason.

"We're excited about the group of guys we have," said Basaccia. "We're coaching their butts off and they're responding real well. We're real excited about the direction we're going special teams-wise."

So, will 2002 be the year Tampa Bay finally brings a kickoff into the end zone for a touchdown? If so, who might the candidates be?

"That's a great question," Basaccia said about who Tampa Bay's punt and kickoff return candidates are. "We've got guys that have done it for this program before then we have some new guys that are working hard. We've kind of changed schemes a little bit, so we're kind of looking at guys to do things inside the schemes we're asking them to do it in. We'll save a little more of the evaluation for when we get to (training) camp."

Let's take a closer look at Tampa Bay's kick return candidates, from most to least likely to earn the primary kickoff return position.

WR Frank Murphy
Murphy, the second-fastest player on the team, is the guy I'd want returning kickoffs for my team, and the Bucs want him returning kickoffs for them, too. Murphy has flashy speed and a relentless running style, which can be a dangerous combination at this position. While Pewter Report was convinced Murphy was the team's best player for returning kickoffs last year, Tampa Bay's former coaching staff didn't agree. They first watched CB Dwight Smith fumble several kickoffs before replacing him with RB Aaron Stecker, who turned out to be ineffective at that time. Finally, Tony Dungy and Marciano turned to Murphy, who didn't disappoint. Murphy averaged 22.3 yards per return on 20 kickoffs before he suffered a right ankle sprain in mid-December. Murphy's injury opened the door for Stecker, again.

RB Aaron Stecker
As a running back, Tampa Bay likes what Stecker brings to the kickoff return position in terms of field vision, but last year, he lacked home run speed. Stecker returned nine kickoffs and averaged a whopping 28.8 yards per return last season thanks in part to his 86-yard kickoff return against the New Orleans Saints – the longest in franchise history. Stecker has returned a total of 38 kickoffs during his career and has averaged 24.3 yards per return. But Stecker has looked quicker throughout the offseason mini-camps and he already has shown he is capable of getting the offense good field position. Now, he must show he can score touchdowns, which he came oh-so-close to doing against the Saints last December.

WR Aaron Lockett
Tampa Bay was stubborn by refusing to draft a return a specialist over the past several years while the embarrassing kickoff return streak continued to grow. But in April, Bucs general manager Rich McKay and Gruden decided that investing a draft pick on a return specialist was long overdue, which led to Tampa Bay's selection of Lockett in the seventh round.

Like Murphy, Lockett is a Kansas State alum. Lockett is the fastest player on the team in front of Murphy. He ran a 4.32 in the 40-yard dash, but the one knock on him is his 5-foo-7, 155-pound frame. Lockett made more of an impact as a punter returner for the Wildcats than he did as a kick returner, but the Bucs will give him a long look at both positions due to his speed and play-making ability. While the Bucs would like him to make an impact at the wide receiver position, the team has already shown that they're willing to hold aside a roster spot for just a return specialist, which bodes well for Lockett.

Byron Hanspard
Hanspard was one of Atlanta's primary kick returners before he landed in Tampa Bay, returning 40 kicks for 987 yards (24.6 avg.) and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder. But Hanspard has been injury-prone and he hasn't been very impressive as a running back during the team's mini-camps. If Hanspard can stay healthy, he will be an interesting player to watch as both a return man.

CB Dwight Smith
Smith returned 16 kickoffs and averaged 22.2 yards per return during his rookie season in 2001, but after he muffed several kickoffs, Smith went to Dungy and Marciano and asked to be relieved of his return duties. Smith doesn't have blazing speed, but he does possess power and good field vision. Smith rebounded from a confidence standpoint later in the season by leading the team in special teams tackles last year with 22.

WR Karl Williams
Williams has been Tampa Bay's primary punt return man over the past few years, but he's also returned kickoffs on occasion. He's returned 51 kickoffs and averaged 22.8 yards per return throughout his career, but he returned just two kickoffs last season. Williams' strongest trait is his elusiveness, but he lacks speed.

CB Tim Wansley
Wansley could be a sleeper. Tampa Bay selected him in the seventh round in April's NFL Draft. He played cornerback at Georgia, but Wansley was a major contributor on special teams, where he was named the Bulldogs' special teams captain in 2001. Tampa Bay could use some more depth at the corner position and if Wansley can show some potential as a return man, they could fill two positions with one player.

RB Travis Stephens
Stephens isn't the fastest player on the team, but he will get a look as a kick returner. Stephens ran a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. His 5-foot-8, 194-pound frame won't be an issue, but his lack of experience as a kick returner could be.

That brings us to the punt return position. All of the players mentioned above are candidates for this position, too. Over the years, Williams hasn't received much competition at this position and although the Bucs re-signed him this offseason to a three-year contract, all signs suggest the team is looking for someone younger and cheaper to step up and unseat him.

Williams has averaged 11.3 yards per punt return throughout his career and his four career punt returns for touchdowns and 1,759 yards punt returning both rank first in franchise history. Last season, "The Truth" averaged 10.5 yards per return and scored one touchdown.

While Williams' numbers are impressive, the Bucs feel they can do better. Williams has been inconsistent at times and severely lacks speed. Perhaps my esteemed colleague Scott Reynolds' comment summed Williams up best when he said, "It takes Karl Williams five minutes to return a punt for a touchdown".

Hey, let's not take anything away from Williams. He's been an effective punt returner, and that's why the team re-signed him. But they gave him a small signing bonus with his new contract, and with the stiff competition at the wide receiver position, Williams will have to prove he's the best man for the job once again.

Lockett, Murphy and Smith probably are Williams' stiffest competition.

As a junior in 2000, Lockett filled in for David Allen, who had suffered an opening day injury. Lockett made the best of the opportunity by returning 22 punts for 501 yards and an NCAA-leading 22.8-yard average. Lockett also returned three punts for touchdowns.

During his Buc debut in May, Lockett looked a bit sloppy fielding punts, but he attributed them to rookie jitters. His performance after his first day supported that sentiment since he fielded punts just fine.

Although the team hardly emphasized punt and kick returns during the mini-camps, both Murphy and Smith fielded the majority of the punts.

Even if the Bucs don't score touchdowns on punt and/or kick returns, field position will play a big part in both their offensive and defensive success or failure.

"We feel like field position is critical to our success," said Basaccia. "Certainly offensively, but also defensively. We want to try to develop an identity on kickoff return if we can, and establish some field position to help our offense. On the other hand, we have one heck of a punt unit, so that's an advantage for us defensively."

Whether it's speed, field vision or elusiveness, Tampa Bay has several return candidates that bring something different to the table. But what exactly is Basaccia looking for?

"We're looking for a guy that can do all of it," Basaccia said.

While we've taken a look at Tampa Bay's punt and kick return candidates, Basaccia insists that each returner's success or failure will weigh heavily on how the guys blocking in front of them.

"I think some credit needs to go to the guys up front on the returns," said Basaccia. "There's a lot of talk around here about returns. Most guys up front are accountable for protecting the returners and getting their hands on a guy and being responsible for the guy they're supposed to have and staying with that guy. I think that's what we're trying to get them to understand. – their accountability for their guy. If they do that then the guy in the back will take care of his job."

Tampa Bay certainly has the talent to end the hideous kickoff return without a touchdown streak. But which player will be the first to do it and more importantly, when will it happen?

To be continued…


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Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com

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