Simpson Savors Chance at Colts' Kickoff Return Job
INDIANAPOLIS – Chad Simpson won't soon forget the moment.
It's what the rookie running back said to himself as he prepared for the moment that he said says much about how he has approached finding a niche in professional football.
This was two weeks ago, Colts versus Houston Texans.
Simpson, a little-known free agent who has emerged as a solid kick returning presence for the Colts in the past two games, was preparing for his first NFL kickoff return.
As he did, a thought ran through his mind:
"All right, you asked for it – now, it's here: Let's take advantage," Simpson said with a smile this week as the Colts (7-4) prepared to play the Cleveland Browns (4-7) at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, Sunday at 1 p.m.
Simpson, a two-year starter for Morgan State University who signed with the Colts as a collegiate free agent shortly after the NFL Draft, indeed has taken advantage of the opunity, and has given the Colts a speedy return threat on kickoffs.
In two games in the role, Simpson has returned nine kickoffs for 226 yards, a 25.1-yards-per-return average that is nearly four yards a return higher than the Colts' season average.
And that first return?
Simpson returned it 46 yards, the Colts' longest kickoff return in 10 games this season and a play that set up a tying field goal in a 33-27 Colts victory. It was the kind of play of which Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said Simpson is capable: a quick-hitting, decisive return with big-yardage, momentum-changing capability.
"He hits it very, very hard," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "That's one thing that he does, like (running back) Dominic (Rhodes) – a lot of energy and a quick burst."
In a 23-20 victory over San Diego this past Sunday, he returned four kickoffs for a 24.0-yard average, and on the second kickoff of the night, Colts President Bill Polian said Simpson "came within an eyelash of going all the way."
"That will come," Polian said of the Colts' improving return game. "That was good to see."
That's the sort of reaction to his play for which Simpson said he has worked since signing with the Colts shortly after the April 2008 NFL Draft, and the sort of reaction he said this week he wasn't certain would ever come.
Not that Simpson said he doubted his ability, but he said he has learned in a half a year around the NFL that for rookies – particularly undrafted ones – earning a role isn't easy, even on a team such as the Colts, which is widely-known as a team that extensively utilizes late-round and undrafted players.
Simpson, after a preseason in which he often was praised by Dungy and Polian and in which he rushed for 49 yards on 16 carries, was released after the preseason, and immediately signed to the Colts' practice squad.
"At times, it gets frustrating, because you can work hard in this league and still get cut, but I leave everything to God's Hands," Simpson said. "I control what I can control. I work hard and again, it's a blessing. I'm here. A lot of guys do a lot of things and they're not here. It's just a blessing."
Simpson spent six weeks on the practice squad, then after sixth-round draft selection Mike Hart sustained a season-ending knee injury, he signed to the active roster. He has played sparingly as a backup running back since then, rushing for 24 yards on six carries.
But Simpson said at the same time, he wanted to return kickoffs, something he actually wanted to do from the time he signed with the Colts. Since college, he had returned kickoffs, a role he had coveted since watching Deion Sanders return kicks when he was a child.
"People were afraid to kick the ball to him," Simpson said. "That's the type of guy I always wanted to be, a guy who people were scared to have the ball in his hands at any point of the game. That's one of the things I wanted to do. When they brought Dominic Rhodes back after I signed my free agent deal, I said, 'That's good. I can step in and learn from him and Joseph Addai, and return kicks. Then, eventually, they'll let me compete for a spot.'''
For four games after he joined the active roster, Simpson waited for the opportunity to return kickoffs.
"They had to take some time to sort some things out," Simpson said. "I just wanted patiently, like anything else."
Once the wait was over, Simpson said he felt a bit of pressure as he faced a huge opportunity in his NFL career, but he said returning kickoffs is actually very similar to trying to make it in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent. An unknown player, he said might have few opportunities to make an NFL roster.
And unlike a running back, a kick returner may have only one or two opportunities per game to make an impact. Which Simpson said is fine with him.
"I'm used to dealing with that – one or two shots," Simpson said. "That's how I got here, period, you know? The (NFL Scouting) Combine, my Pro Day – those were my one or two shots. I'm used to dealing with that. In the NFL, period, you don't have too many chances. I'm just trying to make everything count.
"That shows you your character. When it comes to situations where the game's tight, how are you going to act? How are you going to respond? Are you going to be scared and don't let all your athletic ability take over or are you going to rise to the occasion?''
And so it was that when Simpson was preparing for his first opportunity to return kickoffs in the NFL the words he said to himself spoke volumes about his approach to the NFL.
"I was telling myself, 'Hey, you know what, Chad? Yeah, you're nervous, but we have to get this out of you right now. This is your shot,''' Simpson said. "Again, that one shot. You only have one time to make this impression, so let's make it a good one.'
"This whole ordeal of the NFL period – it's been a one-shot deal for me."