For new need, Bucs look to a familiar face

Receiver Joey Galloway is a leading candidate to return punts, a persistent preseason problem area.

Published August 31, 2005

TAMPA - During this preseason, the Bucs hoped to find a new player to return punts. Now they would settle for somebody who could just catch one.

Tampa Bay has muffed a punt return in each of its three preseason games. Cornerback Torrie Cox dropped one against the Titans and Jaguars and receiver DeAndrew Rubin had another slip through his hands Saturday against the Dolphins.

The solution? Return the job to 33-year-old receiver Joey Galloway.

"Joey Galloway is a guy we count on doing it," coach Jon Gruden said. "He did it pretty darned good at times last year, and he'll do it again if we don't get somebody to clearly take it from him.

"Ike Hilliard has done it, too. Those two guys right now are going to be active. So it's a matter of who's active and what is his role? Punt returners that are good or great aren't hanging around on the waiver wire. We're going to look hard and continue working with what we have."

One option became available Tuesday when the Bengals released former Florida State receiver Peter Warrick. In four seasons, Warrick has a 9.7-yard punt return average with touchdowns of 82 and 68 yards. Gruden said the Bucs would scan the waiver wire, but there is little room under the salary cap.

Galloway remains the best option. He had 20 returns last season for 142 yards (7.1 average), including a 59-yard touchdown against the Saints. Eight other times he made a fair catch.

In his 11th season, Galloway's health is an issue. He missed six games last season after tearing a groin muscle and practiced just once a day during training camp. Because of his value to the offense, a popular theory is that the Bucs would prefer not to expose him to injury as a punt returner. It also may be false.

Galloway considers the job as another opportunity to make a big play.

"I consider that an offensive play," Galloway said. "That's an opportunity right there that changes field position. That's a chance to touch the ball. I would never say that's less important than anything else we do."

Gruden would prefer to have Galloway as a punt returner against teams that might not force a lot of fair catches. Last season, the Bucs also used veteran Tim Brown and Michael Clayton as a punt returner with few results.

"A lot of these punters punt the ball so high now, you might go three or four weeks before you really get a favorable look," Gruden said. "You're going to get numerous fair catches and a lot of them in congested waters. But if you're seeing a line drive punt team or a guy who doesn't have particularly good hang time or force a guy into an awkward delivery of the ball - if you've got a team that's going to give you some good looks, I've got no problem having him back there. That's who I want back there."

Cox's bobble against Jacksonville resulted in a 29-yard Jaguars field goal, essentially ending Cox's experiment as a punt returner. The Bucs appeared eager to put Rubin in that position against the Dolphins. The former South Florida and Dixie Hollins star got his chance in the third quarter but let the ball slip through his hands at the Dolphins' 24. Tampa Bay lost significant field position when cornerback Blue Adams recovered at the 9.

Rubin said he expects to get another chance to return punts Thursday against the Texans. It also may be his best opportunity to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

"They're giving me another chance to do it, to show that I can catch punts," Rubin said. "They know I can catch punts, they're confident in me. It was just poor technique for me.

"They haven't had a long line of guys doing it here except Karl Williams. That's the most notable name. So I'm going to try to make a name for myself."

Galloway said Rubin and Cox should not be embarrassed by their failure to cleanly field every punt.

"Punt returners, people who have done it, are the only guys who don't get down on the guys who drop them because we understand how tough it is to do," Galloway said. "How hard it is to have your eyes in the sky when there are 11 guys running at you. It's preseason, things happen. Everyone who's done it long enough has dropped one. It's not the first. Hopefully, it's the last, but it won't be."

Gruden agrees. Fielding a punt is much more difficult than judging a kickoff. The ball is kicked higher and can spiral in any number of directions. But the biggest difference judging whether to call for a fair catch or take your chances on a return with 11 players bearing down on you.

"There's a lot of decisions you need to make," Gruden said. "Can I return this? Should I fair catch it? Should I let it roll into the end zone? It requires a disciplined, aware guy who also has great instincts in open field awareness and a guy who can catch the ball and take some punishment. Obviously, we need somebody who can make somebody miss. It's a skill not many people perfect or many want to perfect."

Times staff writer Joanne Korth contributed to this report.