But after not returning any punts or kickoffs for touchdowns the last two seasons, the Detroit Lions released him before the 2007 season began.
Apparently, they made the correct decision because the Lions received a kickoff return for a score this past Sunday — from a tight end.
Casey Fitzsimmons’ return came on an onside kick, but it was another example of how much returns are playing a big role in the NFL this season. They’ve come from everywhere — veterans (Pittsburgh’s Allen Rossum), rookies (Arizona’s Steve Breaston), replacements (Baltimore’s Yamon Figurs) and tight ends.
Seven kickoff returns have gone the distance already through four weeks, including a record-breaking 108-yarder by New England’s Ellis Hobbs, and four punts have been returned for scores.
The 11 total already represents the amount of returns for scores from the entire 1984 season. At this pace, with 13 more weeks remaining, the NFL could see a record-smashing 47 returns this year.
Since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978, the most returns for touchdowns came in 2002 with 31. The amount continued at a high rate for the next two seasons with 28 and 27 but dropped off significantly the last two years (19 and 20).
This year, the cycle seems to be heading upward again because teams have placed a higher emphasis on finding quality return guys.
St. Louis traded for Dante Hall before the season, and his return last week — the 12th of his career — has been the Rams’ only bright spot this year. Miami went so far as to draft Ted Ginn Jr. with the ninth pick in the first round of the draft this year and are hoping he becomes an impact player.
Chicago’s Devin Hester, whose five returns last year was a season record and accounted for one-fourth of the league’s TD returns, has shown how much of an impact a good return guy can make. The way Hester is going — two more returns already this year — Bears opponents may go for it on fourth down rather than punt to him.
The Steelers can attest to how a return for a touchdown can affect the outcome of a game. Their last two contests were both positively and negatively changed due to a return.
The Steelers will face another quality return guy this Sunday in Seattle’s Nate Burleson. He has yet to take one back all the way so far in 2007, but with the way the NFL is this year, it would seem to be only a matter of time.
NFL Week No. 5
Game of the week: Seattle (3-1) at Pittsburgh (3-1), 1 p.m. Sunday (FOX).
Upset special: Miami (+5 1/2) at Houston.
Fantasy tip: Denver rookie Selvin Young is averaging more than 9 yards per carry and could be slated for more action if Travis Henry remains hobbled.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.