Depth, competition in return game 'great' for Titans, Washington says

The Tennessee Titans opened the 2013 season with an embarrassing moment by their return specialist.

Three months before the 2014 opener, they have an embarrassment of riches in the return game.

Leon Washington, Dexter McCluster and Marc Mariani all have made the Pro Bowl as return specialists. Between them, they have returned a total of 14 kickoffs and punts for touchdowns, 10 of them in the last four seasons. Washington shares the NFL career record with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns.

“I look forward to it because, like I told you guys last year, special teams is big,” Washington said. “You win games, you win Super Bowls with special teams. … On special teams we don’t play just to play – we play to win games and I like that.”

A look at the career touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns by Marc Mariani, Dexter McCluster and Leon Washington:
98 – Oct. 3, 2010 vs. Denver (kickoff)
87 – Nov. 21, 2010 vs. Washington (punt)
79 – Nov. 13, 2011 at Carolina (punt)

94 – Sept. 13, 2012 vs. San Diego (punt)
89 – Sept. 29, 2013 vs. New York Giants (punt)
74 – Dec. 8, 2013 at Washington (punt)

101 – Sept. 26, 2010 vs. San Diego (kickoff)
99 – Sept. 26, 2010 vs. San Diego (kickoff)
98 – Sept. 23, 2007 vs. Miami (kickoff)
98 – Oct. 7, 2007 at New York Giants (kickoff)
98 – Nov. 25, 2011 at Miami (kickoff)
92 – Nov. 13, 2008 at New England (kickoff)
92 – Dec. 12, 2010 at San Francisco (kickoff)
86 – Nov. 4, 2007 vs. Washington (kickoff)

Whether or not all three can make the final roster remains to be seen. McCluster, a free agent addition and a key piece of the offense, is safe. The other two will be evaluated on what they offer beyond the return game – Washington as a running back, Mariani as a wide receiver.

It is highly unlikely, though, the Titans will see a repeat of last season when Darius Reynaud turned the season—opening kickoff into a safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers and struggled consistently enough that he was released after the seventh game. A brief attempt with unproven Devon Wylie produced a fumble on a kickoff return that was a significant factor in a loss to division rival Indianapolis.

Washington (pictured) finally was added in late November and had a 95-yard kickoff return (he was stopped short of a touchdown) in his second week. In five games for Tennessee, he averaged 13 yards on six punt returns and 30.1 yards on 16 kickoff returns.

Even that, though, was not enough to guarantee him the job this year.

“Every year is different for me,” Washington said. “I have to constantly go out and prove myself. Obviously, with the competition at that position it’s going to make the team better. … The competition we have at that position is going to be great for our football team.”

(Photo by Donn Jones Photography)