It cannot go on like this, Tom McMahon.
That, in a nutshell, was the message Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio indirectly delivered through the media to his special teams coordinator at the conclusion of Tuesday’s training camp practice.
“We didn’t play good the other night against Seattle,” Fangio said. “They took it to us pretty good. Our return game is up in the air as we’ve talked about here before so we need to, by the time we play Oakland, have some clarity there. We do not have any yet. I like the way [K Brandon] McManus is kicking the ball. We had an off-night punting the ball the other night. Although the stats didn’t bare it out, he had a good roll one time and they had a bunch of penalties in their return game which statistically skewed the production of the punter. Hopefully that was just a one-game thing.”
Indeed, Denver’s special teams unit was noticeably substandard in its 22-14 loss to the Seahawks. It’s interesting he points to punter Colby Wadman, who averaged 46.7 yards on three boots, including a 52-yarder — and who is a favorite of McMahon’s. Technically, he outkicked rising Seattle stud Michael Dickson (45.3-yard average on six punts).
But its other components were below average, as well. The coverage units failed to maintain gap responsibility, allowing a 34-yard kick return, and the Broncos’ own returners didn’t provide any spark. This is particularly a concern on punt returns, where wide receivers Nick Williams, River Cracraft and Kelvin McKnight combined for a whopping five yards on five returns.
How close is Fangio to calling that competition?
“Not close,” he said
The Ideal Punt-Returner
For whatever reason, the Broncos are incapable of finding someone to cleanly and consistently field footballs kicked into the air. The Isaiah McKenzie experiment was an epic failure, and cornerback-turned-receiver Brendan Langley hasn’t worked out this summer, muffing a punt in the opener against the Bears — eerie shades of McKenzie’s butterfingers.
Fangio isn’t looking for the next Dante Hall or even Trindon Holliday. Just a warm body with sure hands who can potentially average a first down per return. And the surer, the better.
“Yeah. We’d like that,” he said. “We definitely would like to have that but the first job of a punt returner by far is the ability to catch the ball because most punts go between 40 and 45 yards in the air, 48 yards. If you drop it that’s a big turnover in field position, so that’s job one. Job two obviously we’d like to have a guy that can do something with the ball back there.”
Despite the NFL tinkering with kickoffs, a haphazard shift dressed up in the name of player safety, many teams are driving the ball within the five-yard line, not far enough to reduce returns and the associating dangers.
Fangio admits the Broncos are among the majority, with kicker Brandon McManus recording zero touchbacks against the Seahawks, his kicks landing at or near the goal line. There’s an apparent method to the madness.
“What’s happening in preseason is teams are doing that because they want to see their guys cover,” he said. “It’s an evaluation thing. We’re doing the same thing. We could have [K Brandon McManus] kick it through the end zone probably some of those kickoffs we’ve had, but we want to see our guys cover and we want to evaluate because even if you have a powerful kicker there will be some weather games late in the season where he can’t get it through the end zone. That’s part of it, but then there are—if a team doesn’t fear your return game they will try and drop it in to the one, two or three-yard line and see if you can get past the 25 if they can get you inside the 20. So it’s two-fold.”
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter @KelbermanNFL