Eulogising Tony Horne...

Tom Szczerbowski

Where's the threat from the Rams' return game? Rob Williams looks back at the team's recent horrible history and how next season can deliver momentum changers...

"The surest way to win in the NFL? Return a punt for a touchdown. 18 punt returns for touchdowns last season and the won/lost record for teams returning them was 15-3." – Rick Gosselin.

I was thinking about writing a piece about the lack of dynamism in the Rams’ return game going back… forever, when I read this quote on twitter by Gosselin. And then Trindon Holliday took over the Denver/Ravens Divisional game with a punt return and a kickoff return for a touchdown (of course, the Broncos lost… but whatever). It all seemed to crystallize my thinking. The Rams have been moribund in a lot of areas for many years now, sure, but punt and kickoff returns is definitely high among them. The last time the Rams had a genuine threat back there was probably Tony Horne, and that was in 1999, 14 years ago and counting.

The sands of time pass swifter than Austin Pettis on a punt return, my friends.

Horne was a 5,9 173lbs wide receiver from Clemson. He only played in the league three years and caught only four passes, but in the ’99 Superbowl season he was a difference maker. Averaging 29.7 yards a kickoff return and taking two back for touchdowns. And in the Divisional playoff game against the Vikings, just as momentum was threatening to turn, he broke the Vikes’ back with a touchdown return. Horne scored touchdowns on kickoff returns in ’98 and ’00 too.

Also in ’99 Az-zahir Hakim handled punt returns. A threat to score or fumble on any one of them, it seemed, but in ’99 he averaged 10.5 yards a return and scored a touchdown and in ’00 it was an amazing 15.3 yards a return and a touchdown. Key playoff fumbles against the Saints notwithstanding; Az was a serious weapon back there.

In 2012, by comparison, the Rams’ leading kickoff returner, Chris Givens, averaged 23.4 yards a return and the leading punt returner, Danny Amendola, averaged 7.2 yards a return. Neither scored touchdowns (Givens did but had it called back on a penalty, ditto for a huge Amendola return vs the 49ers. The Rams could’ve had Usain Bolt & DC Comics’ The Flash back there this past season and every long return would’ve been called back for a block in the back. But hey ho…)

Look back at the Rams’ returners in recent years and it’s hardly inspiring. Nick Miller took a punt to the house in 2012 but wasn’t brought back by the Fisher-Snead regime. There was the Dante Hall signing, which was hoped would give us one of the league’s top returners, but Hall’s best days were at Arrowhead and Kansas City (under Dick Vermeil, funnily enough). He returned a punt for a touchdown in 2007, and averaged 15.1 yards a return that year and 25.1 yards per kickoff return, in fairness. But that was a 3-13 Scott Linehan season and it all got lost in the misery mix.

Chris Johnson – remember him? – had a 99 yard kickoff return for a score in 2005. That was more a ‘pure speed, big hole opening’ score if memory serves. Mike Martz did like speed. Johnson hardly had a stellar NFL career as a returner after that. It was the only year in his NFL career that he returned kicks… And that was the last time the Rams ran back a kickoff for a score. Changed the momentum of the game in a flash… It’s seemed that kickoff and punt returner has always been a case of ‘let’s put the roster together and then see who’s the best we have for returns.’ An after-thought.

And that has to change, I think. I believe it will change. Jeff Fisher has always been known as investing thought and resources into special teams. If Chris Givens is going to progress as we hope into a starting wide receiver, we don’t want him back there returning kicks, and Danny Amendola, while a decent punt returner, doesn’t offer that element of pure threat or speed to take it back all the way. When he has broken long returns in recent years he’s been run down. And, with his contract situation, he may not even be on the team next year, who knows. Austin Pettis, meanwhile, isn’t going to remind anyone of Devin Hester anytime soon. A solid fair catch? He’s your man (now he’s remembered to actually wave for a fair catch). Janoris Jenkins, you feel, could be an electric returner, but Fisher doesn’t want to go the feast or famine route with Jenkins’ penchant for fumbles – shades of Az Hakim.

I think the Rams have to invest in a weapon this coming off-season. Look what Holliday did for Denver this season. And there are several options available.

Buffalo’s Leodis Mckelvin led the league in punt returns this past season, with an 18.7 yard average and two returns for scores. He averaged 28.3 yards a kickoff return too. The year prior he averaged 19.5 yards a punt return. He is a free agent this off-season. Possibly too expensive, but still. Worth considering.

Another option is Tavon Austin in the draft. I’m constantly wavering on whether or not he’d be worth the 22nd pick in the first round and would do cartwheels if we get get him in the second (unlikely), but Austin would be a major threat on kickoffs, punts, in the slot and from the backfield. An electrifying playmaker – he is the very essence of what the Rams have been lacking over the years in the return game. He had four touchdown returns on kickoffs in his West Virginia career and one punt return. He is the type of player who, every time he caught the ball, you’d be excited to see if he was going to score. Maybe he is worth that 22nd pick?

Or you could get Kent State’s Dri Archer later in the draft, Archer, a Holliday-like small man of 5’8 (much the same as Austin) returned three kickoffs for scores this season and averaged an astounding 36.9 yards a return. That type of threat has to be worth a fifth round pick.

Bottom line is – the Rams need to address this issue and put someone back there who attacks the opposition as opposed to just being a safe pair of hands. The offense scored 18 points a game last year, and while we’re all hoping that will improve in 2013/2014, a couple of return scores might have pushed us over the edge to win a couple of games we lost.

Tony Horne, we remember you too fondly. With respect, let’s hope he’s a distant memory soon.

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