In many years of the past couple of decades, the Bengals struggled in finding exciting players to boost their return game. In the Super Bowl decade of the 1980s, the team had exciting returners in Ira Hillary and Stanford Jennings. If you remember, it was Jennings who gave the Bengals a major spark in Super Bowl XXIII with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
There were also the occasional "flash in the pan" years where wide receivers like Carl Pickens and Peter Warrick had exciting seasons, but being the high draft picks that they were, the team opted to shy away from using them. Pickens ended up being a Pro Bowl wide receiver, so he left the punt returns from his Rookie of the Year campaign of 1992 behind him to have a bigger role on offense. Warrick never lived up to his potential and eventually broke down after a solid 2003 season. Then there was also the exciting 1997 Pro Bowl campaign of Tremain Mack, who gave fans some excitement for a season, but his career was cut short due to injuries and off-field issues. Quan Cosby and Tab Perry also gave us some excitement with their steady play over the last few years, but weren't necessarily "home run threats".
So needless to say, the team has never really had a true game-changer return man on special teams for quite some time. This could be changing in 2011.
The fine folks at ProFootballWeekly seem to echo our sentiments about the excitement that Bengals fans should have regarding the options in the return game this year. Through their first six games this season, Brandon Tate had been handling the teams kickoff and punt return duties by himself. He excelled at returning kicks while on the New England Patriots, and the Bengals decided to bring him here for that purpose. He hadn't ever returned punts, but was also given that job and had been performing well.
On Sunday, we saw the return of Adam Jones to lineup and in his first play in an NFL game in over a year, he popped a 63-yard return that would have been a touchdown, had his hamstring not tightened up on him. Tate came back to relieve him for the rest of the game and he ended up returning a punt for a touchdown that iced the game for the Bengals. Not a bad day at the office for that special teams group.
Though Jones is still ailing, his return to the lineup should be coming either this week or next. We also know he's capable of busting a big play at any time, as he's been doing it his entire career. In the meantime, Tate will continue both duties as he's done all year. But, with Tate returning kicks and Jones returning punts upon his return, the Bengals may finally have the two-headed special teams monster that they've been trying to get for what seems like ages. And teams will have to gameplan for that.
If Jones or Tate are to miss any extended time for any reason (knock on wood), the Bengals may yet have even another option to throw into the mix for the return game. Let's not forget that running back Bernard Scott returned kickoffs at a high level in 2009 and sparingly in 2010. He had quite a few big returns a couple of seasons ago--one in particular was in the playoff game against the Jets. Scott would be a nice fallback option if need be.
This return unit is just a microcosm for what this team seems to have a lot of this year--depth. There's a lot to get excited about when the Bengals defense forces the opposition to punt this season. Hold your breath and pay attention when the ball is kicked to the Bengals returnmen--you could be witnessing a huge play at any given time.