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Eight isn't enough

Posted Nov 27, 2012

Leon Washington ran his way to tying an NFL record on Sunday with his eighth kickoff return for a touchdown, and No. 8 was a perfect example of why he’s gone where only one other returner has been.

As Leon Washington settled under a fourth-quarter kickoff at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, history was 98 yards away.

What transpired in the next few – and very-fleeting – seconds was the eighth return for a touchdown in Washington’s seven-season NFL career, which lifted him into a tie for the league record with Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns. Also on display were the traits that have allowed Washington to run his way into NFL history.

First, Washington used his explosive first step to get him headed in the right direction. Then, he used blocks by Lemuel Jeanpierre, Frank Omiyale and Doug Baldwin to get the initial lane he needed. Then, he eluded Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter at the Miami 45-yard line. Finally, he turned on the jets to leave safety Jonathon Amaya in his wake as he raced up the sideline.

It was text-book stuff that turned into a record-book achievement.

“That return showed all the strengths that he has,” said a smiling Brian Schneider, the Seahawks’ special teams coordinator. “And he’ll be the first to tell you that it was a really fine-blocked play. That was one of those where all 11 guys did their jobs.

“Everyone else had a key play, and then Leon was able to do what he does.”

A few minutes later in the locker room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Washington also punctuated his assessment of the return and the achievement with a series of facial expressions that ranged from proper perspective to pure pleasure.

And who can blame him? This was never expected to happen. After Washington severely fractured his right fibula in a 2009 game against the Raiders in Oakland while playing for the New York Jets, few thought he would ever play again and even fewer thought he’d regain his form as one of the premiere returners in the league. The Jets gave up on him, trading Washington to the Seahawks during the 2010 NFL Draft.

“After the injury, most people said, ‘You can’t get back,’ ” Washington said.

But in that first season with the Seahawks, Washington didn’t just return to form he exploded, by returning three kickoffs for scores – two in a Week 3 upset of the San Diego Chargers and another in a Week 14 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco.

CO-LEADER OF THE PACK

With eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, Leon Washington finds himself not only tied for the NFL record but atop a list of the some of the best returners in league history:

Player, Team(s)No.
Leon Washington, Jets, Seahawks 8
Josh Cribbs, Browns 8
Dante Hall, Chiefs, Rams 6
Mel Gray, five teams* 6
Travis Williams, Packers, Rams 6
Gale Sayers, Bears 6
Ollie Matson, four teams* 6

* Gray played for the Saints, Lions, Oilers, Titans and Eagles; and Matson for the Chicago Cardinals, L.A. Rams, Lions and Eagles.

Then things changed, as the league moved the kickoffs up to the 35-yard line in an attempt to reduce the number on injuries caused by the violent collisions that had become so commonplace. Washington went all of last season and the first 10 games this season without a trip into the end zone. While he came tantalizingly close, Washington was playing football, not horseshoes.

“Like everything else, you can’t try too hard,” Schneider said of something Washington had come close to doing in previous games. “With the new rule, you don’t get as many opportunities. So it can get frustrating.”

Washington had a career-high 57 kickoff returns in his first season with the Seahawks. Last year, it was 43 – the fewest of his first four full seasons in the league. This year, he has 18, a pace that will produce only 26 returns.

But he finally closed the deal in a blink on Sunday.

“When we can get him some space like that, that’s how special he is,” Schneider said.

And his teammates could feel it coming. Punter Jon Ryan told Schneider during the week that Washington would break one. On the sideline Sunday, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson turned to tight end Evan Moore and told him Washington was about to take this one to the house.

“Before the game you could feel it, that the guys were itching to get me in the end zone,” Washington said, smiling again. “They kept saying, ‘Leon, we’re going to get you there.’ And it happened.”

While others wondered if he’d ever get there again, Washington never had a doubt.

“I always believe,” he said. “It’s something we say in our team meetings: We. Believe.”

On Sunday’s return, it really was “we,” and Washington made believers of everyone.

“We say it every day before we break our special teams meeting,” Washington said. “Coach Schneider calls somebody’s name. He’ll say, ‘Leon.’ I’ll say, ‘We.’ The rest of the unit says, ‘Believe.’ So guys believe, for sure.”

What pleased Washington the most? The execution of the return.

“When you think about the great returners who have played this game, you think about guys that actually execute the play,” Washington said. “Ever since I got here, the returns we’ve had that hit big, we’ve executed the play to perfection.

“A lot of people tend to think that kickoff return is just guys catching the ball and running wherever they can find a gap. That’s how it looks. But we’re actually trying to execute the play.”

Washington isn’t just a kickoff returner. He also returns punts. He also plays running back. And when Leon Washington the kickoff returner gets the ball in his hands, he becomes Leon Washington the running back – because it all starts with vision, regardless of why you might have the ball in your hands.

“Exactly,” Washington said. “And that’s why I take pride in taking my reps during the running back periods in practice. It’s just like a running play. I’ve got my linemen in front of me, Lem and Frank. I’ve got Mike Rob (Robinson) back there, just like my fullback. So it’s like a running play – hit the hole, and don’t hesitate.”

One of Washington’s biggest smiles came when asked about making the kicker miss.

“It’s like getting chase by that dog in the neighborhood that you never liked,” he said. “You can’t let him catch you.”

Now that he has caught Cribbs, Washington has his sights set on No. 9. And beyond.

“It just says a lot, after what I’ve been through in my career, after the things I’ve bounced back from,” he said of No. 8. “So I’m ecstatic. But I’m humble at the same time, because we can want nine, 10, 11 and 12.”