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Punt Returners Can't Afford One False Move

Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

September 02, 2006|Sam Farmer

There were 2,511 punts in the 2005 NFL season, and only nine of them were returned for touchdowns. That's one score every 279 times a ball is booted toward the heavens, making the punt return among the most mundane plays in football.

And one of the trickiest.

This came to mind recently when it was learned Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, a rookie from UCLA, was having a hard time fielding punts for the Jaguars and had been demoted to backup in that role.

But what's so difficult about fielding a punt? Much more than I knew, evidently.

To better understand that task, I consulted Tim Brown, who retired last year but still holds the Raiders record with 320 career punt returns -- nearly twice as many as the next guy.

Brown also holds the NFL rookie record for most all-purpose yards, 2,317. "But," he confided, "I'm a little worried about this Reggie Bush kid with that one."

Brown used to return kickoffs too, but he pretty much stopped doing that after suffering two torn knee ligaments during a return in his second season. The potential for getting wiped out is far higher returning kickoffs than returning punts, he said. Why? Because, unlike typical punt returns, kickoffs involve one guy running at top speed into a guy or group of guys running top speed. Basic physics.

"When I was hurt, I saw the guy coming and he was a 6-2, 240-pound linebacker; I was 194 soaking wet," Brown said. "You do the math; I lose."

Brown still enjoyed returning punts, and he did it very well, for years augmenting his career as a perennial Pro Bowl receiver with a lot of special-teams duty. I asked him for some visual cues, things to watch for on punt returns, and he came up with five:

* 1. Watch the feet: A returner who catches the ball well, with confidence, will have his feet set and weight balanced. That means his feet will be slightly staggered, so he's immediately ready to run. He'll get a much better jump on the returner whose feet are square up field and/or one on his toes. Brown says members of the coverage team who are converging at full speed can take about two steps in the time it takes a returner to make a false step back or correction.

* 2. Fresh out of the box: In 1999, to encourage returns by making it more difficult for a kicker to reach the end zone, the league began using "K-Balls" -- kicking footballs -- that are a lot more slippery than the usual game ball. It's worse in the Super Bowl, where last season the NFL used a brand-new ball on every play of the first half.

* 3. My left foot: It's one thing to field a ball from a right-footed punter, but one from a lefty can be a real problem. The ball spins in the opposite direction and it can do some funky things. Brown has seen ones that look as if they're headed directly out of bounds "and at the last second they'll come whipping back inbounds, I'm talking like 20 yards of movement." Only lefties can bend them like that.

* 4. A nose job: Keep an eye on the nose of the ball. If the nose tilts up, the ball tends to drop straight down. If it tilts down for a right-footed punter, though, the ball tends to draw ever so slightly "about from the middle of my chest to my left shoulder pad," Brown said. With a lefty, the downward-tilting ball might fade five feet to the right.

* 5. Location, location, location: Where the game is being played can mean a lot. For Brown, the three toughest places to field a punt were San Francisco, far and away the worst because of the swirling winds at Candlestick Park; Denver, where the thin air left the ball dancing in the sky; and Buffalo, because of the combination of wind and bitter cold.

Baby on Board

Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart is an expert when it comes to timing his passes. As for his personal sense of timing? Well, you be the judge.

According to USC sources and various reports this week, Leinart and Brynn Cameron, a USC basketball player, are expecting a baby boy in November. Leinart, 23, who dated Cameron in college and since has been romantically linked with Paris Hilton, said "No comment," when asked in Arizona about the reports.

Dollar Signs

How would you like to earn $100 with every swoop of the Sharpie?

Bush does.

At a recent card show, memorabilia marketers were charging from $100 to $150 for Bush to sign items provided by paying customers. It was $100 to sign a card; $110 for a mini-helmet; $120 for a football; $130 to have your picture taken with him; and $150 for him to sign a helmet, jersey or artwork.

Imagine how the prices will rise once he actually plays a down.

*

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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