Oakland Raiders return specialist Chris Carr is the type of player who simply by putting on a jersey incites strong support from fans. He's undersized, self-sacrificing and fearless.
Naturally, you want to see the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder succeed. He's an undrafted free agent; he's tied as the third-shortest player on the Raiders' roster; and he weighs the least on the team.
Yet, Carr has one of the most perilous jobs in football.
The 24-year-old handled 59 kick returns in 16 regular-season contests last season and traveled over 1,300 yards. Every time Carr touched the ball, there were 11 men—all bigger than him, minus the kicker (maybe)—looking to take the speedy returner down. And all 11 get a running start.
The 2007 season was the third straight in which Carr handled the bulk of the team's kick return duties. Since 2005, the defensive back's rookie season, Carr has returned 201 kickoffs for 4,841 yards, earning him the title as "Oakland's all-time kickoff return man."
That title, however, is a bit deceiving. Carr ranks first in team history for total yardage gained, yet has 88 more returns than any other player on the list. Second to Carr is Bo Roberson, who, in 113 career returns from 1961-64, recorded a better average, a better career long and also found the end zone, unlike Carr. In terms of average, Clarence Davis (1971-78) ranks the best at 27.1 yards per return on 79 reps.
Last season turned out to be the worst in Carr's young career. The Raiders ranked 25th in the return department at 21.6 yards per attempt and were one of half of NFL teams that capped of the year without a return touchdown. Carr was responsible for 75.6 percent of the team's kick returns in 2007.
In '05 and '06, the Raiders ranked 12th and second, respectively, in the kick return game. Both were very sound years for Oakland, particularly surrounded by so much all-around disappointment. In 2005, the team averaged 22.9 yards per return; in 2006, they averaged 24.8.
Through all three years, however, Carr failed to record a single return touchdown, either on a punt or kick return. All together, that's 278 touches without a score. Devin Hester, the best return man in the game today, has found the end zone 11 times on 152 touches. Another above-average returner, Buffalo's Terrence McGee, has five TDs on 203 returns.
Last season, Carr's long return was just 43 yards, and that was just one of two 40-plus-yarders he had on the season.
In Week 17, Carr was one of the Raiders' 15 players to suit up who's scheduled to become a free agent this offseason. Though he's a restricted free agent, he'd be a low-tender pickup for another team, and because he's undrafted, he would require no draft-pick compensation.
Doubling as both a return man and cornerback (28 tackles last season) will certainly help the Reno, Nev., native's chances of making the '08 roster. However, with corners Nnamdi Asomugha (likely to be re-signed or franchise tagged), Fabian Washington, Stanford Routt, John Bowie and Chris Johnson all a part of the current roster, Carr's importance on the defense appears insubstantial.
Carr's roster spot is held primarily for his services on special teams. Unfortunately, the 2007 season proved to be a statistical nightmare for Carr, a very specialized player who's highly dependent on his success returning kicks.
This offseason, supporters may again root for the underdog to succeed. But if the Raiders can find a player who can average in the low-to-mid 20s on kick returns and double as, say, a wide receiver, Chris Carr may have to be some other team's fan favorite in 2008.
Anthony Carroll can be contacted at email@example.com