BEREA: The Browns will enter the second half of this season without Travis Benjamin, their young, dynamic punt returner whose record-setting performance Oct. 3 helped them defeat the Buffalo Bills 37-24 in a nationally televised prime-time game.
Benjamin suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Sunday while returning a punt during the third quarter of a 23-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Benjamin will undergo surgery, which has yet to be scheduled, coach Rob Chudzinski announced halfway through his 16-minute news conference Monday afternoon.
So as the Browns (3-5) prepare to host the Baltimore Ravens (3-4) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, they’re coming to grips with the fact that Benjamin will no longer be able to provide a spark like he did earlier this season. Wide receiver Davone Bess will replace Benjamin as the primary punt returner, Chudzinski said.
“Thanks everyone,” Benjamin wrote Monday on Twitter, expressing gratitude to fans wishing him well. “I will bounce back stronger than ever!!”
Benjamin, 23, returned seven punts for 179 yards against the Bills, breaking Eric Metcalf’s previous franchise record for punt-return yards in a game that he established with 166 against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 24, 1993. Benjamin gave the Browns a 17-10 lead late in the second quarter against the Bills with an electrifying, 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. He also returned a punt 57 yards in the first quarter, setting up a field goal and helping the Browns get back on track not long after quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the offense’s seventh play.
“Special teams always have to worry about game planning for a guy like that just because he’s so electric,” Browns kickoff returner and running back Fozzy Whittaker said. “He’s so fast and quick. It’s really hard to contain a guy like that and just seeing the way he went down, you never want to wish that upon anybody, and you always pray that he heals up safely and comes back stronger than what he was before.”
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Benjamin, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft from the University of Miami, returned 22 punts for 257 yards and one touchdown this season, ranking sixth in the NFL with an average of 11.7 yards per return. He also returned three kickoffs for 146 yards (48.7 average), including a long of 86 yards Oct. 20 in a 31-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers. He had five catches for 105 yards and one carry for 45 yards.
As a rookie last season, Benjamin returned three punts for 149 yards (49.7 average), including a 93-yard touchdown Dec. 9 against the Chiefs. He returned three kickoffs for 76 yards (25.3 average) and had 18 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns to go along with six carries for 66 yards.
“You saw the growth as a player, as a receiver, as well as the obvious that you see as a returner,” Chudzinski said. “So it’s a tough loss for us. Travis obviously is a big part of what we do and has been in terms of the return game. He’s explosive and has the speed and the ability to make the big play, but we’ll have some guys that’ll step up.”
The Browns will count on Bess to rebound after he fumbled a punt in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs (8-0) and dropped three passes. Cornerback Joe Haden and rookie safety Jordan Poyer give the Browns backup plans at punt returner, Chudzinski said. Whittaker said he has never returned punts and doesn’t think he’d be “very comfortable” doing so.
Benjamin suffered the injury with 2:20 left in the third quarter when Chiefs cornerback Ron Parker tripped him up during a 9-yard return. Benjamin writhed in pain on the field but eventually walked off with medical personnel. He did not return, and Chudzinski described the injury as a sprained knee during his postgame news conference.
“You hate to lose a player like Travis with his speed, his experience as one of the best returners in this league obviously, but at the same time, it’s next man up,” outside linebacker and special-teams captain Quentin Groves said. “I know Davone is going to do a great job. He had a minor hiccup this past game, but that’s not Davone. I know he’s going to bounce back and do a great job back there for us, and I know the guys are going to rally behind him because he’s a leader on this team as well.”
With the Browns trailing the Chiefs by three points, Bess filled in for Benjamin, caught Dustin Colquitt’s punt at the 50-yard line, took a step or two and then dropped the ball without being hit. Linebacker Frank Zombo recovered the fumble at the Chiefs’ 47 with 7:02 remaining. The gaffe cost the Browns premium field position and allowed the Chiefs to chew up more than three minutes of precious time before they punted again.
“I had it,” said Bess, who has returned punts throughout his six NFL seasons, five of which he spent with the Miami Dolphins before being traded in April. “When I got my eyes up to see where the defenders were, they were there, and I must not have had it 100 percent. It’s just discipline. I’ve got to look the ball all the way in, and it starts in practice.
“Those plays right there can be game-changing plays, momentum, especially in that situation. It was just an opportunity. I’ve just got to focus on my fundamentals.”
Bess also leads the NFL with nine dropped passes, according to ProFootballFocus.com. STATS LLC has him tied for league lead with seven drops.
Bess said he’s never struggled this much in his career.
“I’ve been through a lot tougher things in my life, a lot,” Bess said. “Just another bump in the road.
“A lot of [the drops are] in my control, and it will get fixed. Just got to keep working.”
Chudzinski insisted he’s still confident that Bess can give the Browns what they need on offense and special teams.
“I think that Davone is everything you could ask for in terms of a guy working and doing the things to be the very best he can,” Chudzinski said. “He’s a pro’s pro in that way. I have faith in him that he’ll make the corrections. I know there’s some things from a technical standpoint that he can improve on in that area, and I think some of it is just trying to do it too much before he has the ball secured.”
Bess doesn’t present the return threat posed by Benjamin, the offense’s fastest player who’s nicknamed “The Rabbit” because he grew up chasing and catching the critters in Belle Glade, Fla. But Bess just needs to be reliable and avoid backbreaking mistakes.
“Travis is a big playmaker,” Bess said. “It’s unfortunate with his injury, but I’ve got to step up. That’s as simple as it gets.”
Whittaker talked to Benjamin Monday morning and encouraged him as he embarks on what’s usually an eight-to-12 month rehabilitation process. Whittaker suffered torn knee ligaments, including an ACL, a torn lateral meniscus and underwent microfracture surgery during his senior season at the University of Texas, so he’s familiar with the trials of recovery.
“I told him it’s going to be a process,” Whittaker said. “It’s going to be a journey. We all have his back.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.