Many Unhappy Returns

At last the Giants appeared to have their special teams return units back on track. Last year, the tandem of Willie Ponder and Chad Morton handled the kickoff and punt return units with equal aplomb and things only looked to get better this season.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Pro Bowl for that tandem. While Morton had offseason surgery and said he felt healthier and quicker than ever, Ponder was unceremoniously released and is now a member of the St. Louis Rams. And Morton certainly hasn't enjoyed the added success many, himself included, had figured.

"We haven't really had a big kickoff return, we haven't had a big punt return," coach Tom Coughlin understated.

Last year, Big Blue ran back one kickoff and one punt each for six points. This year? They haven't even come close.

"We're horrible at it," said Morton, the punt returner whose longest return this season was 36 yards against Chicago. "I've been frustrated since the start of the season. It's really frustrating going out there and not getting any results. Guys are trying, but we're just horrible right now."

Heading into the Eagles showdown, the Giants were 25th in the NFL in punt returns (7.9-yard average) and 28th in kickoff returns (20.5).

However, Morton pointed out that the Giants aren't exactly as bad as they look.

"One little hole is all we need," he explained. "We were close to breaking it to the punter (against Carolina). All it takes is one and we're back in there and we're all talking good about us again. I'm only one yard off last year and last year I had three big plays (over 20 yards) and I have two now. So it's really not that big of a difference."

Last season Morton averaged 9.6 yards per return and posted a 58-yard TD. This season he's only averaging 8.3 yards per punt return. While he's done a good job of not placing blame elsewhere, it's clear that Morton's lower output is not all his fault and that fact is bothering him.

"I'll take the blame," Morton said. "If they want me to make a play no matter what, then that's what they expect from me and that's fine. When you catch the ball and somebody is right there, you can't do much. It's tough. Hopefully we can get one soon. Even (Michael) Strahan told me not to waste too much time or energy worrying about everybody else and just worry about myself.

"I think it'll come. That's just how the return game is. I've been in this type of situation before. It's very frustrating. Hopefully it'll work out."

R.W. McQuarters, who has done his fair share of punt returning throughout his career, is one of the 10 men responsible for making Morton go. He admits there's still plenty of work to do in that department.

"We just have to give him more room and more time to make sure that he breaks loose," said McQuarters, who has a 9.9-yard career punt return average. "It's everybody. We just have to do a better job of blocking to give our returner time and seams."

On kickoff returns, the blockers have come under fire as well.

Morton received the first opportunity to return kicks this year. He averaged 21.7 yards on 29 returns before Derrick Ward replaced him after eight games once Ward regained his health. Ward (20.9 avg. on 19 returns) hasn't even fared as well as Morton, and the duo is well off last year's production. Ponder averaged a lofty 25.9 yards per return in 2005, including a 95-yard TD, and Morton chipped in at a 23.3 clip.

"We're still doing the same things but we've had less opportunities because we're doing better on defense," Ward explained. "The last couple weeks I really haven't had a chance to return too many. I'm just hoping the next couple games we can get it going."

Ward stated that the gameplan remained the same after he took the reins from Morton.

"It really was just changing a guy," he said. "I'm bigger than Chad but the philosophy is the same – just hit it hard and give the offense the best field position possible."

Of course just like the club's struggles on punt returns, the problems go so much deeper than just the return man.

"It's a combination of things, including the kicker not kicking the ball long enough or kicking it short, us not getting back to our drops the way we're supposed to, the wedge not fitting on the block or me not hitting the wedge well enough," Ward said.

One of the problems has been New York's four-man wedge. The four-man unit of Grey Ruegamer, Guy Whimper, Visanthe Shiancoe and Adrian Awasom knows it still has room to improve.

"It's very important because it's the hard-nosed part of the return," Awasom said. "We've been struggling here and there with little techniques. We're just looking to open up holes and get the whole big picture going. We're not happy at all, but we did a whole lot better (in Carolina)."

The key to a successful wedge is the ability of all four men being able to get to their assigned spots all at the same time.

"It's all timing," Awasom said. "There's only one guy on the wedge that watches the ball (Ruegamer) and when he says ‘go,' we have to go. It's all about timing."

Awasom explained how the coaching staff decided on its wedge blockers.

"They usually try to pick a good combination of size and speed," he said. "Try to get guys with a lot of size that can get moving."

That'll go a long way toward getting Morton and Ward moving, because neither returner is about to wave the white flag.

"We're going to continue to work on it till we get it right," Ward said. "Once we get one, I think it'll be like a domino effect. Hopefully pretty soon we'll get it done."

"We need one, especially at this time of year," Morton said. "If you're struggling on offense or defense, a long return is a big play. It's one play that can change the whole momentum of the game. It can put your team up or bring it back from being down. It's such a huge play."

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