BEREA: Rabbit chasing was a game for Travis Benjamin growing up.
A grimy one, too, because a successful catch meant diving into the Everglades slime.
But the Browns’ second-year receiver and punt returner spoke with pride Wednesday of those days in Belle Glade, Fla., a town near Lake Okeechobee that with neighboring Pahokee is known as “Muck City.” The 23-year-old Benjamin wasn’t embarrassed to admit that the rabbits often provided dinner, and the skins can be sold.
“You can catch ’em and sell ’em or catch ’em and eat ’em,” Benjamin said. “They kind of taste like pork chops to me. So it’s a great meal.”
Every winter when sugar cane is harvested, about 280,000 acres of fields are set afire, burning the leaves off the tall stalks. Kids are drawn by the smoke, but must wait until the tractors arrive to flush out the rabbits.
They have been chasing rabbits in “Muck City” since the 1940s. Kids learn how to stand downwind, how to inhale smoke, how to judge angles and when to turn on their closing speed to nab the fleeing animals. Some have suggested that’s the reason the area has produced more than 30 NFL players, including Santonio Holmes, Anquan Boldin, Fred Taylor, Andre Waters and hall of famer Rickey Jackson.
“I’ve caught like 20 in one day before,” Benjamin said Wednesday. “There’s nothing to it once you know the tendencies of what a rabbit’s going to do and when he’ll come out.
“I saw a guy catch 60 or 70 in one day. He was out there by himself. A local guy, for fun he’d go out there and catch ’em all.”
A 2012 fourth-round draft pick from the University of Miami, Benjamin has been known as “Rabbit” around the Browns’ facility since he told the story his rookie year. On Oct. 3, with a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the second quarter of the Browns’ 37-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills, he showed why the Browns allowed Josh Cribbs to leave in free agency.
Benjamin totaled 179 punt return yards in FirstEnergy Stadium, breaking the Browns’ single-game record set by Eric Metcalf in 1993. Benjamin’s total was the most in the NFL since 2004 (when Eddie Drummond had 199 yards for the Detroit Lions) and earned Benjamin AFC special teams player of the week honors.
That doesn’t mean he will be taking the kickoff-return team to dinner. With a $480,000 salary, he sounded too thrifty for that.
“I thought I’d give them cupcakes,” Benjamin said.
Eating cake might be fine for his teammates, who all seem to love Benjamin.
Cornerback Joe Haden is one of those who will be getting his just desserts. Along with Josh Aubrey, Tank Carder and Eric Martin, Haden made one of the key blocks among the nine during Benjamin’s touchdown.
Haden knows he can’t hang with the Rabbit.
“Naw,” Haden said. “I think his legs are 75 percent of his body.”
That is part of the problem.
In the wake of Benjamin’s electric performance against the Bills, fans are begging for more, and rightly so. With receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron the Browns’ only legitimate offensive weapons, coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner must find creative ways to get Benjamin the ball.
But that might not be on kickoffs. Even though the Browns have had little success with Greg Little and Bobby Rainey, Chudzinski said he is sticking with Little while also looking at running back Fozzy Whittaker, claimed off waivers from the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 30.
That’s because Chudzinski fears Benjamin, 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, can’t take the pounding on kickoffs. Those also involve more straight-line running with one cut, while punt returns allow Benjamin to use his quick moves, Chudzinski said.
Benjamin would love to try kickoffs. But it doesn’t seem worth the risk of injury when he can affect the game so dramatically on punt returns. In his short career, Benjamin has 20 punt returns and five of them have gone for more than 30 yards. That includes a 57-yarder against the Bills and a 93-yard touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in December.
That means the Browns must think outside the box with Benjamin on offense, and that’s not running the predictable end around. Chudzinski showed what he was capable of in 2011 when he was offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and tailored the scheme to replicate what Cam Newton had done at Auburn.
Creativity and daring are big reasons for the Browns’ three-game winning streak. It began with punter Spencer Lanning’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Cameron on a fake field goal in a Sept. 22 victory over the Vikings in Minnesota. The Browns need more of that, especially to take advantage of Benjamin’s physical gifts. When Benjamin lines up at receiver, defenses will concentrate first on Gordon, the Browns’ best deep threat. That should create opportunities for Benjamin.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden is all for that. In his football and minor-league baseball career, the only player he’s seen faster than Benjamin is Indians center fielder Michael Bourn.
“Michael Bourn laid down a bunt on me in A ball and I remember coming to the ball like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Weeden said Wednesday. “Him and Travis, smaller guys who can just fly.”
Starting with Sunday’s home game against the Detroit Lions, the Browns should increase Benjamin’s role. If they do, the Rabbit will be licking his chops.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.