The life of a punt and kick returner for the Carolina Panthers isn't an especially high-profile one.
Most team records for those positions are held by Steve Smith (who now does neither) or Michael Bates (whose last season with the Panthers was in 2000).
These days, the return game is pretty pedestrian stuff for the Panthers, who haven't had a punt returned for a touchdown since Smith did so in 2003 against the New York Giants, or a kickoff taken all the way since Rod Smart did it against New Orleans that same season.
Enter Mark Jones, who fits the Panthers' profile well. Handling both duties this season, he's in the middle of the pack of NFL returners, averaging 24.3 yards on kickoffs and 10.4 on punts. Nothing, however, for a touchdown or even close to it. In fact, in Jones' five-season NFL career as primarily a punt returner, he has yet to score.
“I think about it, I'm not going to lie,” said Jones. “I know I have to be patient. You have to remember you're just one block away.”
Jones was signed on Sept.1 to fill in for last season's returner, Ryne Robinson, who was recovering from a knee injury suffered in training camp. When Robinson went on injured reserve, Jones' roster spot was assured for the rest of the season.
“We were hoping Ryne would come back after his knee injury, but that just never came to fruition,” said Panthers coach John Fox. “Luckily we found Mark. Our scouting department did a good job.”
Jones, who spent training camp in San Diego before being cut by the Chargers, began the season as the Panthers' punt returner, with rookie running back Jonathan Stewart handling kickoffs. When Stewart took a hard hit returning the opening kick against Tampa Bay on Oct.12, it was enough to convince Fox to have Jones handle both duties.
“I've always enjoyed returning punts, but I've made myself available as an emergency guy on kickoffs,” said Jones, drafted by Tampa Bay in 2004 out of Tennessee. “There's a lot that's the same in doing both: catching the ball, making a read and making the most of it.”
One aspect of Jones' game does stand out. When returning a punt near the Panthers' goal line, he will often act like he's going to catch the ball. Instead, he'll fake it, then sprint straight up the field. That usually confuses the opposition's punt team as the ball bounces into the end zone for a touchback.
“Some guys don't like it and they let me know it,” said Jones, who said he learned the move from veteran Joey Galloway during three seasons with the Buccaneers. “But, if I can't fair catch it, it's a good way to bait them.”
The play usually works, but it didn't in the season opener against San Diego. Before Jones could run away from a punt early in the third quarter, the ball hit him on the leg and rolled into the end zone. Luckily for Jones, it was recovered by teammate Dante Wesley.
“After that, the coaches told me not to get too cute with it,” said Jones.
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