When former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer anointed Darren Sproles as his starting punt returner during Sproles' rookie campaign in 2005, it was comparable to a father handing the car keys to his 16-year-old son. Sproles had worked enough and shown enough to merit the opportunity, but he sure made everyone nervous each time he got behind the wheel.
PR Darren Sproles
Sproles struggled to field punts cleanly and had trouble judging distance and hang time. This prompted Schottenheimer to famously remark: "If we have to put someone back there to catch the ball and hand it to [Sproles], that's what we'll do."
Fortunately for Norv Turner, Sproles no longer needs a wingman. He has worked tirelessly over the last couple years to become as sure-handed as any returner in the league. Nonetheless, he is not as explosive on punt returns as he is in other phases.
Sproles averaged 11.3 yards per return last season (ranked No. 16 in the NFL amongst players with at least six returns); he had only one return of 40-plus yards; and he failed to score a touchdown.
Sproles' only career touchdown on a punt return came against the Indianapolis Colts in 2007. The Colts were ravaged by injuries, forcing special-teams players into starting roles and leaving Indy's kick-coverage teams discombobulated.
For Sproles, the difference between punt returns and the rest of his touches is that he is not able to build up a head of steam. Even though he has gotten better at judging punts in the air, his focus on securing the ball forces him to field punts at a standstill. This costs him forward momentum, and by extension, costs the team field position.
PR Buster Davis
This is one of the reasons Buster Davis will be in the mix to return punts this season. The 2007 first-round pick fields punts much more smoothly. He's also a bit of a long-strider, which allows him to pick up yards in deceptive chunks. Davis has averaged just 8.4 per punt return with the Chargers, but it is difficult to read much into that number given his limited body of work (a total of eight punt returns).
A pleasant side effect of letting Davis return punts is the confidence boost it could provide. Davis has struggled to carve out a role on offense, so any extra touches might help his development as a playmaker. The Chargers bought into that theory in 2007 when Coach Turner called Davis' number on a few running plays, hoping to ease him into the action.
There are some pratfalls that come with making Davis the primary punt returner. Firstly, he lacks Sproles' home-run element. Davis may bring back three punts for 10 yards apiece, while Sproles would return them for 5, 5 and 20. Secondly, each additional touch for Davis means one fewer touch for Sproles. After agreeing to pay Sproles $6.621 million this season, the Chargers may be reluctant to reduce his workload, even marginally.
So how will the Chargers handle the situation? Look for Sproles and Davis to both field their share of punts, with distribution depending on a long list of circumstances. If the game plan calls for Sproles to take increased touches from scrimmage, Davis can handle the lion's share of the punts. If the team is looking for a spark in the return game, Sproles will get the nod.
Regardless, these two players are less likely to compete for the starting job and more likely to compete for a piece of the pie. It should come as no surprise if both end up with a 10-plus returns by season's end.
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Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.