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Return game quandary

Posted Nov 30, 2010

When most NFL teams lose their top two return men on their depth chart there’s typically a big drop off to the third stringer. Buffalo is the exception to that rule. Roscoe Parrish was lost for the season (dislocated wrist) and C.J. Spiller has missed a pair of games with a hamstring injury. In their absence Leodis McKelvin has fared well in holding down the fort.

But now with Spiller set to return to the lineup head coach Chan Gailey and special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven have an interesting decision to make regarding return duties.

“We’ll see,” Gailey said indicating he’ll make the decision later this week. “Leodis is playing a lot of corner right now. He’s playing a lot of defense. He’s earned the right (to return). He’s obviously a great returner, but we’ve got to be smart about how we handle all those guys. Maybe we’re smart with C.J. not putting him out there to run those kind of things the first week back from a hamstring too. There are a lot of things to consider going into this ball game.”

McKelvin, who was the team’s primary kick returner as a rookie in 2008, stepped seamlessly back into a full time return role in Week 10 and has quickly shown he can be every bit as dangerous as the two returners that were ahead of him on the depth chart.

One could argue that he should have a touchdown both on punt and kick return in the span of three weeks. Were it not for a very questionable holding penalty McKelvin would have a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Lions and had he not gotten his feet tangled up with Arthur Moats, he’d have a 97-yard kick return for a game-winning touchdown in overtime against Pittsburgh as well.

Those near misses have McKelvin confident that taking one back for a score is a matter of when not if.

“Every time that I’m back there it seems more and more like it’s about to break,” McKelvin told Buffalobills.com. “My rookie season it was the same thing. It looked like it was about to break and then it finally did against Cleveland. This year guys have been working really hard to block it up and it’s eventually going to break.”

One possible solution could be to leave McKelvin on kick return duty and allow Spiller to handle punt returns to avoid overworking both he and McKelvin knowing they each play important roles on offense and defense respectively.

“I wish that was an easy decision and I had a formula,” said Gailey. “I don’t. You make the decision that you feel is best for the team. The good thing about those guys is they’re pretty unselfish. They’ll do what we ask them to do for the team.”

McKelvin credits his success thus far to the blockers on his return unit for quickly adapting to his one cut and go style.

“I feel like they’ve already adjusted to me on kickoff return in terms of how to block,” he said. “I don’t want them to be passive and wait in the hole. I’d rather have my guys attack them and get them to one side because that’ll give me more running lanes to run through with the ball.

“We’re also trying make more things happen on punt return because once you get past that first wave (of coverage players) you know it’s going to be a big return.”

Spiller, with more opportunities this season than McKelvin, has a better average on kick returns (25.4 to 23) thanks in large part to his 95-yard return for a touchdown in Week 3 against the Patriots. His average on punt returns has also been better (14.7 to 4), but he’s only returned three punts to McKelvin’s six this season.

Both players have a 20-plus yard punt return and both have a 40-plus yard kick return.  Both have also fumbled the ball on returns as well.

“I’m just doing my job, which starts with taking care of the ball and not fumbling, and then it’s just about getting field position for the offense,” said McKelvin. “That’s first and foremost, just getting good field position to help the offense get points on the board.”

As difficult as the decision might be for Gailey and DeHaven to navigate, it’s a good dilemma to have.

“There are some people that are choosing between guys that can’t return,” Gailey said. “At least we’re choosing between two guys that are good.”

Whatever course the coaching staff chooses to take McKelvin insists he’ll be good with it.

“They know my capabilities and what I can do with the ball in my hands,” he said. “It’s up to them. I’m always ready all the time. Even though I didn’t start back there at the beginning of the season I can still come in and do some things. They probably want C.J. to come in and get more involved, but it really doesn’t matter as long as we win the games and get better as a team overall, I’m all for whatever they decide.”