Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell Discusses the Team's Returners
INDIANAPOLIS – The potential certainly is there.
But Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said while that's true of the players with a chance to handle return duties for the defending AFC and AFC South champions next season, something else is true, too:
No one at the spot has proven anything yet.
Caldwell said that means the coming weeks will dictate a lot about the area next season.
"Obviously, we have some guys who certainly can field the ball," Caldwell said recently in an interview for this story on the Colts' returners, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
"We'll just have to see."
Caldwell, entering his second season as the Colts' head coach, said multiple times this off-season that that's an imant element to remember about the Colts' return game.
Yes, Caldwell said, it would be nice to have big plays.
And sure, the team is always looking for dynamic play from the position.
But Caldwell also said the reality is while the Colts' return game is an important part of the special teams and overall team concept, and while having a dynamic, play-making presence would be beneficial, far more important is consistency and reliability.
And overall, Caldwell said, steady improvement is more important than a sudden surge.
"Often times, people are looking at guys to take it and change the field position every single time they get the ball," Caldwell said. "That's not going to happen."
The Colts during the off-season made moves to improve the return game.
Most of those moves came in or around the NFL Draft.
Chad Simpson, the Colts' kickoff returner much of last season who returned a kickoff 93 yards for a critical touchdown in a 35-31 victory at Jacksonville in December, was released shortly before the NFL Draft. Also in the off-season, the Colts opted to not re-sign cornerback T.J. Rushing, a four-year veteran who averaged 5.7 yards on 22 punt returns last season.
In the draft, the Colts used a seventh-round selection – the No. 246 selection overall – on Indiana University cornerback Ray Fisher, who returned 17 kickoffs for a 37.4-yard average as a senior and had a 9.8-yard average on punt returns.
Shortly after the draft, the Colts signed Brandon James, who started seven of 50 games at the University of Florida, and who set four Southeastern Conference and 11 Florida records returning kickoffs and punts. He averaged 24.3 yards and scored one touchdown on 112 kickoff returns, and also returned 117 punts for an 11.7-yard average and four touchdowns.
"I feel like I can help them out a lot in the return phase," James said of the Colts.
Second-year veteran wide receiver Sam Giguere returned five kickoffs for a 24.4-yard average last season, and second-year running back Donald Brown, third-year safety Jamie Silva and second-year receiver Austin Collie each returned one kickoff. Silva returned seven punts for a 4.6-yard average last season, and is the only player on the roster who returned a punt for the Colts last season.
Caldwell said the returner or returners could be any of a number of players, and that entering training camp there was no overwhelming leader for either role. He also said it remained to be seen if there would be one player handling both roles or some combination.
"We don't know yet," Caldwell said. "Right now, we have guys who look quick and fast and who can field the ball."
Caldwell early in the off-season called the return game "lacking," and several times spoke of the need for improvement, at the same time continually saying it was incremental improvement – not dramatic improvement – that remained necessary.
"You know me, I'm not going to try to hide from the facts," Caldwell said. "It hasn't been quite as explosive as we'd like, but the league, because of the speed that you face, does not allow anyone to just blow the top off, in terms of their ability to return the ball up and down the field. You've had guys that have done it in spurts, here and there. We're looking to be more consistent.
"If we catch the ball and make certain that it doesn't hit the ground, if we don't gain an inch, in terms of our punt return, we're still not in bad shape. We do have some guys that can put that ball in the end zone. In kickoff return, we just need to get the ball consistently out past the 20 (yard line).
"That's what we'd like to do. We're just pushing to get a little above the norm."
As OTAs wrapped in mid-June, Caldwell said that very much remained true, even if it was still uncertain just how that improvement would come, and who would help provide it.
"We certainly will have someone who is capable given the opportunity," Caldwell said. "Get it blocked properly, give them a seam and they'll have the wherewithal to make a difference in that regard, but to anticipate that all of a sudden – because you have a different returner – that you're going to be able to average 15 yards a punt return and 35 yards per kickoff return is not going to happen.
"We just need to get incrementally better. Just a little better. That's all."