Every team talks about it in theoretical terms but you get the feeling that this year, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats kinda mean it.
Somewhere not too distant from the front of their collective minds, the Ticats’ kick and punt return teams believe that they can score a touchdown every game.
They may not need to, if Zach Collaros and his way-ahead-of-last-year offence can live up to their advance billing, but the special teams DNA is there to do something absurd (as in really good), starting with the guys who actually lug the ball.
Brandon “Speedy B” Banks, who ripped off the greatest play that didn’t count at the end of last year’s Grey Cup, wasn’t even in the lineup against the Ottawa Redblacks down at Never-Lose Stadium Monday, and the Cats still used punt and kick returns as a lethal punctuation mark.
Let’s pause here for a moment, and reflect upon the subtle value of a team incurring injuries that aren’t too punishing, but which create revealing opportunities.
Last year, Banks was the team’s main returner, but got hurt and was replaced by Quincy McDuffie for a game against Winnipeg. McDuffie ran a punt back for a touchdown. But by the next game he was on the sidelines with an injury and Banks, back in the lineup, returned a punt for a touchdown.
Not long afterward Banks was hurt again, and Terrell Sinkfield, released only a week earlier by the Argos, stepped in against Saskatchewan and returned a punt for a touchdown.
This all came after the Lindsey Lamar, who was returning kicks and punts well enough to evoke memories of Chris Williams, was perpetually concussed out of the lineup.
Three conclusions to draw from all of this: the Ticat scouting staff knows how to assess returners; Jeff Reinebold recognizes and coaches-up special teams players like it was a fine art; and new rules meant to encourage punt returns walk right in the Cats’ wheelhouse.
This year, the five interior linemen on the punting team may not proceed downfield until the punt has crossed the line of scrimmage, giving returners two, maybe three, more seconds head start. And a bounced punt which results in a no-yards flag, will have the five-yard penalty added on at the end of the return, if it helps the return team’s field position. That should also dampen the uber-aggression of downfield tacklers.
With Banks among the regulars being rested in Monday night’s friendly, McDuffie returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and had a punt return of 105 yards nullified by a penalty.
And Sinkfield had a couple of acrobatic punt returns of 23 and 32 entertaining yards.
“Every time we get the ball, we have to think we can score,” McDuffie said afterward, reciting the ancient returners’ creed. “We’ve got three of the best returners in the league, and any time we get the ball we can spring one.”
Sinkfield, noting the new rules, added, “It was dangerous for teams to kick to us last year, and it’ll be even more dangerous this year.”
Neither McDuffie nor Sinkfield thought the rule changes affected the Ticat return game Monday, and Kent Austin felt the same way, noting that when both teams had their ‘A’ squad in, the downfield coverage on punts was good.
But with the Cats having three great returners from which, most games, to choose two, combined with the change in league philosophy, other teams must feel like they’re looking at a time bomb just waiting for the right tick of the clock.
And success can multiply like gerbils.
“When you have a great returner,” says Austin, who has three, “it really gives a lot of incentive for the guys on that team to block hard and to hold the blocks longer.”
Last year, the Ticats had four returns for touchdowns in the regular season and Banks had two more punt return TDs in the conference final. That made six in 19 games. Take away a penalty or two in the conference final and Grey Cup and it would have been eight in 20 games. And that was with the old rules and with Sinkfield and McDuffie new to the team.
Nobody’s expecting a return touchdown per game, not even the guys who say there is potential on every kick, but somewhere they’re at least fantasizing about it.