- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

The fallout of the Deion Sanders debacle continues to haunt the Washington Redskins.

The team released returner Brian Mitchell in order to sign Sanders last season. And this season, without Mitchell or Sanders, the Redskins have no positive punt return yards after three games.

The best return of this season is three yards; the other two returns lost two yards. There were also two fair catches while four other punts landed untouched. The Redskins already have switched from kick return specialist Michael Bates to receiver Kevin Lockett, who returned punts over 10 games for the Kansas City Chiefs last year.

Meanwhile, Mitchell ranks third among NFC punt returners with a 12.2-yard average and is on the cusp of more NFL career marks that largely were earned during his 1990-99 stint with Washington. Sanders retired in July after managing one important return last season, as well as taking another punt off his face mask.

With the NFL's worst-ranked offense, the Redskins could use any help they can get at improving their field position. Instead, the punt return unit can't get into the black.

The Redskins switched to Lockett after two games when Bates admitted he didn't have a good feel for the job. Bates, a five-time Pro Bowl player, is an excellent kick returner and coverage player, but punt returns require a quicker read and more agility than speed. The Redskins may use Bates for punts near midfield when his quickness could get him into the end zone, but Lockett will handle those in Washington territory.

Lockett averaged 7.5 yards on 34 career returns over three seasons with the Chiefs. He bobbled one against his former team during the 45-13 loss last Sunday and was simply caught for a loss on the second. The Redskins also list cornerback Darrell Green and receiver Darnerien McCants as punt returners.

"It's pretty underrated. It's one of the most dangerous [jobs], but it's also very important for field position," Lockett said. "In the three losses we didn't work any field position on punts. Get 20 or 30 yards on a punt return and it can change the momentum of the game."

Lockett is seemingly on the verge of also gaining more time as a receiver. The No.3 wideout, behind Michael Westbrook and Rod Gardner, knows the system better than teammates after four years in Kansas City. Lockett hopes he can add big punt returns to his offensive production which includes a team-high 13.8-yard average on five receptions.

"It's two different mentalities," Lockett said. "When it comes down to punt returns it's sort of a war mentality where you just expect to get hit four for five times. When you become a receiver, you go into finesse, quickness. After getting 15-20 yards on a punt, you're now back in the huddle and you want the ball again because you feel you're going to make a play again."

Conversely, the Redskins are averaging 27.4 yards on Bates' kickoff returns. That's the team's highest since Mike Nelms' 29.7 yards led the NFL in 1981 and five yards better than James Thrash last year.

"I need blockers that are into my style of running, and I have a coach that designs returns for me," Bates said.

The Redskins have four blocking schemes for Bates, who sometimes unexpectedly peels away from teammates in order to use his speed he won the bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1992 Olympics to outrun single defenders. Bates' 41-yard kick return against San Diego is the team's longest play this season.

"Michael has great vision. He has great cutting ability," linebacker Eddie Mason said. "He understands how to read off of blocks. That's what separates him from a lot of guys in the league."

Coach Marty Schottenheimer lets the nine-year veteran decide the direction of his returns whereas younger player would have to follow the scheme. However, that permission comes with a caveat.

"If you leave the blocking unit it's buyer beware," Schottenheimer said. "If you run off for a touchdown, we'll all be cheering for you, but if you go certain places there's no one blocking for you."

No worries, said Mason. Bates is the third leading NFC returner and may yet reward Schottenheimer's faith in him.

"The way we've been working, sooner or later we're going to hit one," Mason said. "We almost broke one [against Kansas City]. Football is all about emotion, who has the momentum. A big kick return, that can do a lot for a team."

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