Not Many Happy Returns … Friday Cup O’Chiefs

Javier Arenas wrinkled up his nose and grimaced.

“Oh man, I’m so tired of waiting for something to happen,” the Chiefs rookie CB-Returner said in the Chiefs locker room this week. “I’m thirsty for the end zone. I need a drink from the end zone.

“We’ve been close, we really have. We just need to break through.”

Arenas was talking about something that began the season with so much promise for the Chiefs – the return game on special teams.

After years of struggling to get anything out of punt and kickoff returns, there appeared great hope in second-round draft choices Arenas and Dexter McCluster. In the pre-season, they had returns of 41, 44 and 54 yards made all the more impressive since the blocking units were made up of many players who are no longer with the team or in the NFL for that matter.

Then came the Monday night season opener against San Diego. In what was a prelude of the problems the Chargers would suffer from during the 2010 season, McCluster and Arenas ripped the coverage units. McCluster had a 94-yard punt return touchdown, and he and Arenas added other returns of 36, 26 and 24 yards.

Anything seemed possible every time the ball left the foot of the opponent’s kicker or punter and hung in the air. Arenas had eight return TDs during his college career at Alabama, and McCluster’s speed, quickness and shiftiness made him a perfect for the job in the NFL.  

But after breaking through against the Chargers, the return game has gone nowhere. After McCluster’s 94-yard return they have not sniffed a big return, let alone the end zone. Against the Raiders, Arenas took a punt back 72 yards for a touchdown, but the score and long return as wiped out by a penalty. Arenas had a kick return for 40 yards in the same game, but that was also wiped out by a penalty.

So the longest legal kickoff or punt return they’ve had in the last 12 games went for 35 yards on a kickoff return by Arenas against the Broncos in Denver.

That has been a major disappointment for the Chiefs.

“We had some bigger returns early but now kickoff returns we haven’t had one out past the 50,” head coach Todd Haley said. “There are some things that we keep track of that are our goals weekly that we are just not achieving. We’ve just got to push, work harder.

“There is no doubt we have been close, especially these last few games. Things have to fall into place for us to have a big time return.”

Only 10 of the 46 kickoff returns in 13 games have given the Chiefs offense starting field position beyond the 30-yard line. When it comes to starting field position after kickoffs, the Chiefs are No. 30, with an average starting spot of the 23.8-yard line. Only Houston and Indianapolis are worse. The league average is 26.5 and the league leader is Seattle at 31.1.

Punt returns have not been any better. So far this season, the average NFL punt return is 9.5 yards. In the last 12 games the Chiefs have only nine punts returns at 10 yards or more out of 31 punts.

“I think it is just fundamentals,” said Haley. “It is understanding the things you have to do to have good returns. It is a hard job because there are a lot of big, fast guys coming down to cover kicks on teams and they all have some really skillful guys that (covering kicks) is mainly their job.

“You just have to practice it, you have to work hard at it and you have to do a good job on Wednesday and Thursday of working those two specific areas and then you have to go out and execute on Sunday when the tempo picks up even more. We have been working hard at it, we feel like we are making progress, we feel like we have been close and we just need to finish one off. It is about time that we did something like that.”

For the Chiefs over the last few years the problem was finding someone who had the talent and skills to reach the end zone on a punt and kickoff return. On October 1, 2006, Dante Hall had the last of his 11 return touchdowns on a punt against San Francisco. It would be 55 games until the Chiefs had another return on special teams for a score. That came on November 22, 2009 when Jamaal Charles went 97 yards with a kickoff return.

Charles efforts have all been on offense since then. But McCluster and Arenas were selected in the 2010 NFL Draft for their ability to come in and provide a spark in the return game. They got the attention of the league in that opener, although McCluster missed five games at mid-season with a sprained ankle.

“Our guys are pretty good,” said WR and special teams ace Terrance Copper. “Throughout the year there have been teams that worked hard to keep the ball away from them.”

The sophistication of kickers today also makes setting up big returns harder to do.

“The kickers are so good that you may have it wired and the guy kicks it six yards deep or the punter puts it one yard from the sideline or puts it in an area that makes it almost impossible to return,” said Haley. “The kickers are so good that you have to have some things fall into place then you have to have everybody execute. You have to have a returner that is generally able to make someone miss.”

There are a lot of other factors involved on returns beyond the returner and the guys kicking the ball to them. When a team is dealing with injuries, it trickles down to the special teams. Starters go out, backups step up and that leaves holes in special teams units. On the punt and kickoff returns teams that were on the field for the San Diego game last Sunday, only six players on each unit were on those teams in the season opener against the Chargers. The five players who have remained on those units are the core contributors for the special teams: LBs Andy Studebaker and Cory Greenwood, RB Jackie Battle, TE Jake O’Connell and S Reshard Langford.

“It comes down to the front line guys on kickoff return, they have probably the toughest duty in getting back fast, finding the switches, weaves and twists and figuring out on the fly who you have to block,” said Haley.

“They (McCluster and Arenas) obviously have skill and ability to do it but everyone else has to do their job. But they have to make one or two miss on most returns. We have been making progress but I feel like we just need to keep working at it and something good will happen.”

Over the final three games they face better punt coverage units than kickoff coverage teams. On punt returns, St. Louis is 13th, Tennessee 3rd and Oakland 20th in coverage. On kickoff returns, the Rams are 28th, Titans 31st and the Raiders 20th.

“We’ve just got to stay patient,” said Arenas. “It’s coming. I can feel it.”

NFL PERSONNEL FILE FOR THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16

  • CHARGERS – signed LBs Darry Beckwith and Brandon Lang off their practice squad; released RB Curtis Brinkley; placed S Pat Watkins on the injured-reserve list (knee) ending his season.
  • GIANTS – placed WR Steve Smith on the injured-reserve list (knee) ending his season; signed TE Jake Ballard off their practice squad.
  • JETS – signed DL Jarron Gilbert off their practice squad.
  • LIONS – claimed CB Eric King off waivers from the Browns.
  • REDSKINS – signed DL Jeremy Clark, last with Cowboys.
  • VIKINGS – placed QB Tarvaris Jackson on the injured-reserve list (toe) ending his season.

3 Responses to “Not Many Happy Returns … Friday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • December 17, 2010  - Edward says:

    I think before year is up these guys will break a few big returns. They Mcluster and Arenas are due


  • December 17, 2010  - el cid says:

    Over due if you ask me. Size may have something to do with it. Injuries fit into it also. SD’s Sproles has broke the mold on small men but he is one with longevity, odds are against Mc and Arenas both being great special teamers. More like next draft, here comes the next “great” returner. Arenas becomes a nickle or dime guy and Mc stays with the offense.


  • December 17, 2010  - bobmac says:

    The guys that take it all the way just let it rip, Arenas has become more tippytoe since pre-season.




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