With Vikings, Leading Man Rarely Returns

Over the last decade, the Minnesota Vikings have used a potpourri of kick and punt returners, with the leading man from the previous season rarely repeating that feat. It looks like things will continue to change with the Vikings' return men, which isn't a change at all.

There was some talk at the Vikings' recent minicamp about who would be their return men. Unlike many teams in the NFL that cultivate return specialists that handle the duties for years, the Vikings have had no such luck. In fact, some would contend that the Vikes have paid as little attention to the return game as any team in the league.

Last year, the Vikings' punt return game left something to be desired. Opponents of the Vikings last year had 49 punt return opportunities. They averaged 10.2 yards per return and called just six fair catches. The Vikings, on the other hand, had 48 punt return possibilities. They averaged 8.3 yards per return and called 19 catches – waving an arm in the air on more than 40 percent of punts.

Bobby Wade was the leading punt returner, taking back 16 punts, but also calling 11 fair catches. That is expected to change this year, but why should that be any surprise? The Vikings change return specialists so often, they really can't be called specialists, more like "return fill-ins."

For more than a decade, it has been almost impossible to have a Vikings player lead the team in punt returns in consecutive seasons. Over the last 10 years, the team has been led in punt returns by nine different players – David Palmer, Randy Moss, Troy Walters, Nate Jacquet, Nick Davis, Keenan Howry, Nate Burleson, Mewelde Moore and Bobby Wade. That doesn't appear to be changing this year.

Things were just as muddled on kickoff returns. Since Palmer led the Vikings in kickoff returns in 1998, the revolving door has been just as pronounced. Since then, the leading kick returners have been Robert Tate, Walters, Jacquet, Moe Williams, Onterrio Smith, Kelly Campbell, Koren Robinson, Bethel Johnson and Allison. This year, they are hoping that Maurice Hicks, who will be the 11th kick returner in the last 11 years for the franchise, will finally bring some stability there, but that uncertain since being the Vikings' kick return guy has been as big a curse as the Madden cover jinx. The list reads more like a police blotter than a "who's who" among returners.

At minicamp it appeared as though Wade was by no means a lock to return to the role of punt returner. The team worked out Aundrae Allison, Charles Gordon and even gave consideration to allowing free-agent signee Bernard Berrian to do the job. It would seem the Vikings are continuing the trend of simply finding a return specialist among the players on the 53-man roster and not designating a roster spot to a true return specialist.

Perhaps that day will eventually come, but, for the time being, it looks like the carousel continues to spin for the Vikings – and it will until the team dedicates a roster spot solely for a player who can energize the return game.


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