It May Finally Happen.It may finally be time to toss Moss. The Giants clearly aren’t comfortable letting a current roster member (especially the aforementioned player) take over the return duties. The arrival of Adam Jennings, a depth chart WR but actually a return specialist should end Sinorice Moss’s lackluster tenure in New York.
Several teams, such as the Carolina Panthers, opt to utilize the talent of starting caliber players on special teams. The Giants choose not to but have enjoyed a rare treat in Hixon over the past 3 seasons. Hixon is skilled enough to start as either a returner or a receiver but was stuck in depth chart limbo at 4th option.
In light of the Jennings’s arrival, I compiled a list of notable Giants specialists from the 2000 season and beyond.
Ron Dixon: Dixon carved out a place for himself in New York sports history when he ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Eagles in the 2000 NFC Divisional game. From there on the Giants rolled through their two game playoff schedule, beating the Vikings a week later 41-0.
The Giants, of course, puttered out when they reached the Super Bowl. Losing 34-7, their only score came from a Dixon kick return. This may have been the spark needed to generate a comeback but the ensuring kickoff was also returned for a score by Baltimore. Giants fans would have to wait 7 more years for a heroic Super Bowl victory.
Brian Mitchell: Mitchell joined the Giants as a veteran. The depth cart running back had spent years starring as a premier return man in Washington and Philadelphia. Mitchell was set to be part of a Giants team poised for Super Bowl contention. However, injuries and several second half game implosions derailed New York’s season. The Giants lost the final 8 games of the year and finished 4-12.
Instead of being a key cog as a specialist on a championship squad, Mitchell’s final year in the NFL was spent as a glorified backup running back.
Mitchell makes this list for two reasons. First of all, he was brought in to be strictly a specialist and during his previous years in the NFL he was one of the best in the league. The second reason may have gone unnoticed to fans of 30 of the 32 NFL squads.
Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins seemingly unveiled the explosive wildcat offense for the NFL. The unorthodox style had been used almost exclusively at the college and perhaps high school levels before Miami made it popular in 2008.
Panther and Giants fans that had stayed tuned to a meaningless season finale in 2003 would have seen Mitchell display the offense 5 years earlier.
With Jim Fassel’s firing already made public, the Giants found themselves ending a hapless season at the hands of the eventual NFC champion Panthers. For one drive, Mitchell was inserted at running back (a sight odd enough in itself) and took direct snaps. It proved ineffective (even if it worked no one was watching) and the wildcat lay dormant until the Miami upset of New England in the fall of 2008.
Willie Ponder: Like Hixon, Ponder also wore number 87 during his time in New York. Also like Hixon, he had a knack for finding the end zone on kickoffs. Unlike Hixon, he never found success as a receiver.
In 2004, a surprisingly hopeful opening to the season had dissolved for the Giants. After jumping out to a 5-1 record, Kurt Warner and the offense began to falter. After a string of losses, it was time to hand the keys over to a wimpy looking, young QB known as Eli Manning.
On Saturday, December 18th Manning was set to face off with Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben was drafted 11 picks after Manning but was in the midst of leading his Steelers to the AFC Championship game as a rookie. Unlike Manning, he had a large, powerful presence and several victories gave him confidence that the former clearly lacked (at the time).
Back to Ponder. Ponder opened the contest with a kick return for a touchdown that sent the excitement starved fans filling the Meadowlands into a frenzy that lasted nearly the entire game. A Frank Walker interception of Roethlisberger followed the return and Manning was able to take the field with momentum and the lead. The result was the first valiant effort put forth by Manning since replacing Warner. Though the Giants lost, Manning was able to take several necessary steps forward that day.
Despite the arrival of the next player on the list, Ponder made the 2005 roster. The season opener that particular year took place at home on the 4th anniversary of 9/11. Refusing to disappoint the New York area on this particular day especially, the Giants put on a show and romped the Cardinals. Part of that show included a rare feat: a kick return and punt return for touchdowns achieved by the same team in the same game. Ponder provided the kick return.
Ponder was the 2004 NFL leader in average kick return yards, but was cut before the 2006 season. He played for two NFC West teams in ’06 (Seahawks, Rams) but exited the NFL at season’s end.
Chad Morton: Like Mitchell, Morton had also made a name for himself returning kicks in Washington. Listed as a running back, Morton specialized in fielding punts during the 2005 season in New York. After a few weeks, he replaced Ponder as the kick return specialist and handled both duties. Unlike Mitchell, Morton was a member of the Giants during a relatively positive year. After two losing seasons, the Giants returned to prominence and won the NFC East. Morton provided the punt return to complete the dual return game against Arizona. He did not stay with the Giants in 2006.
Domenik Hixon: Hixon began his pro career in 2007 as a Bronco. He got off to a truly unfortunate start, nearly paralyzing a Buffalo defender upon being hit during a return. Later that season, Hixon became a Giant and made his first big impact in the regular season finale. He ran a kick back for a score against the Patriots in what would become a preview of Super Bowl 42.
Hixon continued to contribute through the successful postseason run. The Giants gave the receiver a shot on offense and in the second preseason game of 2008, the former Akron star didn’t disappoint. In the first quarter he racked up 3 touchdowns (two receiving, one return). This fantastic showing gave the organization confidence and when Burress was suspended for a matchup with the Seahawks the following October, Hixon got the start. Hixon notched a touchdown in that game as well.
He continued to contribute as both a receiver and dangerous return man through the 2009 campaign. Unlike the other players on this list, he saw significant playing time as a non specialist. A costly drop of a sure touchdown against the Eagles in 2008 derailed his campaign to become a permanent fixture in the starting lineup. Despite beginning training camp in 2009 as a starting receiver, Hixon soon found himself behind Smith, Nicks, and Manningham.
The versatile player was set to continue the return duties for New York in 2010, but his recent ACL injury has ended his season. Recently waived, it is expected that he will clear waivers and be placed on IR.
One has to wonder, if returning to the Giants will be a positive for the young player. Hixon could very well have been a starting wide receiver on several other NFL teams.
David Tyree: Tyree joined the Giants in 2003 and like most young players; he earned a roster spot by contributing on special teams. The players listed so far were each return specialists. Tyree however, excelled at gunner. Teaming with the best punter in NFL history, Jeff Feagles, he downed countless punts deep in enemy territory; often inside the 5 yard line.
Tyree, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as the NFC special teams selection, desired to be more than a gunner. In interviews he insisted that one day he would make a name for himself as a receiver. Despite being a fan favorite, this didn’t seem likely. Tyree saw his first significant action as a receiver during the 2004 season finale when he filled in for an injured Amani Toomer. He managed to score a touchdown but failed to carry the success over to 2005.
It didn’t seem very likely that Tyree would one day record perhaps the most famous NFL reception of all time. Rounding out the receiver corps with Hixon for Super Bowl 42 Tyree wasn’t guaranteed a large amount of playing time on a Giants team that favored extra tight ends and running backs than surplus receiver packages.
During the final team practice before the game he struggled to haul in a single ball despite being thrown to often.
As many of you know, I’m a Syracuse man. Super Bowl 42 occurred during my freshman year and I had the“privilege” of watching Giants history unfold in a dorm lounge filled with Patriot faithful. The gasps for air that filled the room when fellow Orangeman, Tyree, fell to the turf clutching the ball to his head still ring in my ears. Patriots fans resorted to obscenities while the Giants supporters enjoyed a two-tiered level of pride for both their team as well as their school.
The miraculous catch coupled with his touchdown reception defied the odds and allowed Tyree to reach heights that no specialist has before. Almost fittingly, Catch 42 was the final catch Tyree would make for the Giants.
A Sports Illustrated cover later, Tyree was finally in position to compete for significant time at receiver in 2008. A hamstring injury cost him the entire season. In 2009, he entered camp buried under at least 4 if not 5 other players on the depth chart. He failed to make the team after a horrendous showing.
Despite his declined receiving skills, the Giants made a serious error cutting the Super Bowl hero. Two or three well downed or blocked punts (the plays Tyree excelled at) would have been much more valuable than the single reception recorded by guess who….Moss.
Tyree played one last season as a gunner for Baltimore and will likely be hanging it up for good in the coming weeks.
Quick NFL Notes:
-I don’t buy “Favre Watch” for a second and neither should you. On what alien planet would a team that is supposedly set for Super Bowl contention wait until nearly August before finding out if it had a starting QB?
Let’s assume that there really is doubt surrounding Favre’s return (which there isn’t). Wouldn’t the Vikings have brought in some insurance at QB? Would Minnesota hand the keys of their solid roster over to Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels?
As a PR guy I can’t knock them for trying to generate buzz, but this song and dance was interesting the first time and intriguing the second. It’s ridiculous now.
-Terrell Owens wants a home. He’ll get one. It should take about a week or two of training camp for someone to lose a valuable receiver. To be fair to the guy, he kept his mouth shut in Buffalo. For those who argue that he usually waits until the second year to stir up trouble: No one is going to sign him to a multi year deal. He’ll likely surface on a mid level club about a month from now.