Last season Buffalo's punt team was taking a run at history as Brian Moorman flirted with becoming the first punter in league annals to post a 40-yard net average for the season. This year it's the punt return team chasing an all-time record.
Roscoe Parrish, who currently leads the league in punt return average (19.4), is within striking distance of the NFL record for return average in a season held by Herb Rich who set the record back in 1950 with an average of 23 yards per return. Rich's record seems a bit dubious in light of the fact that he only had 12 returns in 12 games that season for the Baltimore Colts.
But it is nonetheless the single season record recognized by the league. Parrish right now sits sixth all-time on the list surrounded by a bunch of returners from the 1940's, 50's, 60's and one from the 1970's. None of them appeared in more than 14 games and only one had more than 20 returns in a season.
Parrish is on pace to have just over 27 returns this season, meaning he'll have about 10 more chances to raise his average this season. Of course raising your average from an unusually high 19.4 is no easy task, but Parrish's teammates don't see it as impossible.
"If anyone is going to do it, he has a great chance of doing it," said fellow return man Jim Leonhard. "The most recent is 1961 that's above him (Dick Christy, NY Titans). That's kind of an amazing thing if you can do it. Being a returner myself that's unreal. It obviously doesn't happen very often."
When you ask Parrish if he thinks he'll get enough opportunities to bump up his average, he oozes confidence.
"I just want the ball in my hands. I don't care. If I get six or seven more my average is still going to be above that," said Parrish of the all-time average. "That's the type of confidence you have to have."
The problem is history has shown that some of the best returners that have more than 20 returns in a season generally don't have averages higher than 17. It's because most returns cover 10 to 12 yards.
San Francisco's Jimmy Williams had 20 returns in 2002 and averaged 16.8 a return. It's the highest single season punt return average of any player with 20 returns or more in a season since 1950. Santana Moss, while with the Jets had 25 returns, but averaged 16.5. Dante Hall in 2003 with Kansas City had 29 returns and averaged 16.3. Even the highly regarded Deion Sanders had 24 returns and averaged 15.6 a return in 1998 with Dallas.
Just two weeks ago Chicago's Devin Hester also had an average of over 19 yards a return like Parrish, but his numbers dropped off because he had a handful of returns the past two games and he did not have any big hitters. His average has since dropped to 15.9.
Parrish and Hester, who are former University of Miami teammates, catch up with each other on the phone almost weekly to provide one another with an added dose of motivation.
"I said, 'Man you bumped down. What's going on?'" said Parrish of his last conversation with Hester. "He said, 'I've got more returns than you.' So I told him it's all good. We keep in contact because we both played punt return at Miami and he had two touchdowns my last year and I had two touchdowns and his average was 15.8 and mine was like 15.5 so we always competed with each other. And it hasn't changed. It's a good thing."
The fact remains that if Parrish wants to have the all-time best single season average, he's going to need to bust at least one more return for a touchdown this season. All the players with higher single season averages than Parrish returned at least two punts for touchdowns with the exception of Rich.
"I think it looks like in order to give him a chance we're going to have to get him to the end zone at least one more time and if anyone can do it Roscoe can," said Coy Wire. "We just have to make sure we give him enough room to work."
Parrish's teammates have a great respect for his rare explosiveness and quick cutting ability, and that sometimes inspires the players on the punt return unit to hold that block just a little longer for him.
"Every time he touches it we think he's going to score and that helps because our guys work knowing it's never over," said head coach Dick Jauron. "Every time he touches it he thinks he's going to score. He's probably the quickest guy that I have ever seen or been around."
Assuming Parrish stays on his current pace and has 10 more returns this season. He'd need to average 29.3 yards on those returns to become the NFL's all-time leader in punt return average (23.1).
That's a tall order, but the diminutive return man is undaunted.
"When I get an opportunity on punt return I just try to make the best of it and I always look forward to the touchdown to be honest with you," he said. "They say you've got to get the first down, but I think that's automatic with me because you've got to have that confidence on punt return. I'm always trying to look for the touchdown. That's just my motto when I have the ball in my hands."
Parrish's first opportunity to raise his average comes Sunday against Jacksonville, the team against which he recorded an 82-yard return for a score last season. But the Jaguars are much improved covering punts since drafting punter Adam Podlesh, who is a strong directional punter and may make clean returns difficult for Parrish.
But Buffalo's special teams coordinator has faith that Parrish and the men in front of him can get the job done.
"In my mind there's no better punt returner than Roscoe. It's tough to have what he has now," said Bobby April of Parrish's average. "I think obviously he's going to have to break another one to reach those heights. He's up for it, our team is up for it. Hopefully we can just keep improving."
"Right now I've just got to continue to make big plays and get touchdowns to raise the average," said Parrish. "We've got six more games and we'll see how that plays out. I want to be number one, not number six."
|Player||Year - Team||Gms||Ret||FC||RetY||Avg.||Lng||TD|
|Herb Rich||1950 Balt.||12||12||--||276||23.0||86||1|
|Jack Christiansen||1952 Det||11||15||--||322||21.5||79t||2|
|Dick Christy||1961 NYT||14||18||--||383||21.3||70||2|
|Red Cochran||1949 CHC||12||15||--||314||20.9||71t||2|
|Jerry Davis||1948 CHC||11||16||--||334||20.9||70t||2|
|Roscoe Parrish||2007 Buf||10||17||2||330||19.4||74t||1|
|Billy Grimes||1950 GB||12||29||--||555||19.1||85t||2|
|Jack Christiansen||1951 Det||12||18||--||343||19.1||89t||4|
|Lemar Parrish||1974 Cin||13||18||1||338||18.8||90t||2|
|Woodley Lewis||1952 LAN||12||19||--||351||18.5||82t||2|