TEMPE, Ariz. – In the fourth quarter of the Arizona Cardinals’ 27-24 win over the Houston Texans last week, Javier Arenas took a crucial kickoff out of the end zone and was only able to reach the Arizona 18.
Had he just taken a knee, the team would have started off at their own 20. The difference of two yards doesn’t seem like huge deal. However, while those six feet — or 72 inches, as it was — aren’t much, the “game of inches” axiom exists for a reason.
But that does not mean Arenas, who has returned a total of 10 kicks this season, did anything wrong.
“He saw something, he was OK to bring that ball out in our opinion,” Cardinals special teams coordinator Amos Jones said, noting Arenas’ problem was not taking the ball out, but hesitating a bit a bit in doing so. That caused him to lose a blocker, which negatively impacted the return. “There’s always going to be times where taking a ball in the end zone is like making a fair catch — ain’t nothing wrong with that. We possess the ball and that’s what we want to do, possess the football.”
Jones, however, said you never want to give the offense the ball inside the 20 since you could get there via a touchback, but added “that’s going to happen sometimes” and compared it to three-point shooters in the NBA who get second-guessed until the ball starts going through the net.
Returning kickoffs in the NFL has never been an easy job, but it’s one that’s been made increasingly difficult the last few years as the NFL has looked to curb injuries.
The league decided to move placement of the ball before it was kicked up five yards to the 35 before the 2011 season along with the abolishment of the “big wedge” a couple years prior have really made the job of “return specialist” somewhat obsolete.
Which leads to a returner needing to make a decision: Take the ball out and try to make a big play, or just take a knee and allow the referee to place the ball at the 20-yard line.
“More so it’s mental opposed to just physical,” said Arenas, the Arizona Cardinals’ primary kick returner. “You’ve got to make good decisions, you’ve got to be smart.”
Nine games into the season, many a Cardinal fan would seem to think Arenas has not been.
Acquired in an offseason trade for fullback Anthony Sherman, the 26-year-old Arenas was known for being pretty electric in the return game. Arenas’ average of 22.3 yards per return is among the lowest in the league, and the sight of him failing to get as far as the 20 has ranked near the top of frustrations for fans who watch the team.
However, just because a return does not go as far as one would not does not necessarily mean Arenas did his job poorly.
“So many things have to go right,” Jones said, noting Arenas is just one of 11 members of the kick return unit. “Everybody’s got to do their job.”
Added Arenas: “You bringing the ball out now, a lot of things have to go right and if you don’t bring it out deep, you’ve got to basically get it back to the 20 to eliminate a mistake or a bad decision on bringing it out.”
Arenas pointed the fact that he could take a ball out from deep in the end zone and as long as he makes it to the 25, it will be looked at as a good decision, but if he only gets to the 19 or so the perception will change.
It’s a rather delicate spot for a returner to be in, as there are precious few seconds to both catch the ball and analyze what’s in front of you before making the call.
“It’s a tough decision,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s a feel thing. You count in your head, ‘a thousand one, a thousand two, a thousand three.’ If you get to four, stay in there, they’re real close.”
Jones noted there are parameters they want their returners to work with, and those are based on things like game situations, weather conditions, field conditions and the score of the game. As long as a return is attempted with an understanding of those factors, Jones said they will have no issue with the decision, no matter where the ball ends up.
“Because then it’s about a team concept,” he said. “We saw something, we have to take advantage of what see either by scheme or by our own personnel, and a lot of times that’s by our own personnel. It’s not necessarily about who our opponent is.”
The Cardinals believe in their personnel, based on what they’ve seen this season along with Arenas’ track record in the NFL, and the player certainly believes in himself.
“I’m going to see some things and if I don’t get to the 20, I’m still going to take that risk sometimes, it’s part of the game,” Arenas said. “As smart as I’m supposed to be back there, if I see an opportunity and I feel good about it, I’m going to take it.”