49ers Off-Season: 'Returning' To Glory

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IFebruary 10, 2010

DETROIT - JANUARY 3:  Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears carries the ball during the game against the Detroit Lions on January 3, 2010 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

San Francisco is on it's way back to the top; that's what we're telling ourselves anyways. 

On this road back to triumphant prominence, it would help to have someone to return punts and kickoffs for us. 

One lasting memory from 2009 is the Seattle game. It's the game that, had SF won it, would have given them an NFC West sweep, a 9-7 record, and a sense of progress beyond any doubt.  Additionally, the bragging rights would be indisputable, even if the Cardinals still managed to win the division.

It was, however, a bad day.  And of all the many mistakes the 49ers players and coaches made that day, one stands out as the fugliest.  The 49ers botched hand-off while attempting a reverse during a punt return.  God, it's still hard to say and embarrassing to type. 

Why did the 49ers, who ran over Seattle like a tin can in their first meeting attempt such a goofy play? why did they gamble in a simple return, with the end result of giving the Seahawks the ball back on the thirteen-yard line?  The answer can be read between the lines of a lead I took from a Daniel Brown article written for the San Jose Mercury News:


[While interviewing for the 49ers' special teams coordinator job, Kurt Schottenheimer turned the tables and asked coach Mike Singletary a question.

"Mike, do we have a return guy?" he wondered.

The answer, of course, is no...]

So, to avoid desperate and risky plays on special teams in attempt to manufacture a return game, there is a rather simple solution: go get a return man who's worth his salt.

As with any position sought in the NFL, there are three main way to hunt. There's trading, drafting, and acquiring through free agency.


Most teams with proven return guys won't deal them cheaply, if at all.  It is, however, fun to dream.  For Instance, Reggie Bush or DeSean Jackson would be a great addition to the running and passing games, but the Eagles and Saints are simply not dumb enough to trade away players of that caliber.

Another top-notch return man, who recently was of great interest until Mike Holmgren came along and ruined things, was Josh Cribbs.  Cribbs, unfortunately for SF, it seems will be renegotiating his contract with the Browns.

This leaves one suggestion for the trade possibility that is a real possibility - Mr. Devin Hester. He has struggled in the return game lately, and as Chicago tries more and more to get him involved in their offense, they seem to succeed only in taking away his venom on special teams.  This is one of those times when I think a change of scenery for a man could do a lot of good (for both the man, and the scenery.)

And then there's the Free-Agent Market:

The top free-agent return man, without a doubt, is Darren Sproles.  He's a mighty-mouse type of player who is simply too small to play football.  The thing is, nobody ever could prove that to him.  Not only can he be an excellent change-up to a power back (like Mr. Gore in SF)  but he can return the heck out of a punt.

Slightly down the ladder is Leon Washington.  A similar story, he can run, catch, and return kicks and punts.  His season was prematurely ended by an injury last year but his abilities are indisputable.  See the Jet's Special teams as of early last year.

The last FA KR to catch my attention is Domenic Hixon.  An undersized receiver with speed, he can do the special teams return duties just fine, and could be a steal at the right price.


Which brings us back to the draft, which I'd promised myself and others I'd try to forget about until after the combine.  I am a liar.

Moving on to the only obvious first-rounder who can swim upstream, C.J. Spiller is amazing.  He didn't fumble once at Clemson.  Spiller has great speed in and out of pads. He can catch the little ones and break the for big ones. If he lands in SF during the first round, I certainly won't cry about it.

Uncertain to be a late-first or early-second rounder, is Jahvid Best. It's hard not to be sold on a name like "Best" isn't it? He to does it all, and more.  His big quesation mark comes with his knack for getting injured while doing something literally awesome - like flying.

Dexter McCluster is another pocket-power sort of athlete.  He fits the Sproles profile but is unproven at the NFL level.

In the Wide Receiver arena we find Jacoby Ford and Jordan Shipley.  Shipley is a lock to me.  Watching  his individual effort after his QB got knocked out of the BCS Bowl cemented him in my wish list as a slot-receiver.  He can also return the pigskin, averaging 13 yards a punt with two touch-downs in 2009.  Shipley strikes me as a slightly taller Wes Welker type who can make an immediate impact as a late-second to early-third rounder.

The final receiver on my list is Jacob Ford out of Clemson.  He was Spiller's other half at Clemson.  He breaks big ones and catches with sure-handed style.  He is rather small though.

So there are obviously some options, but SF needs to make sure running a desperate reverse isn't one of them.




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