Losing wide receiver/punt returner Travis Benjamin for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament is a huge blow for the Browns.
But I don’t care how often cornerback Joe Haden gets in coach Rob Chudzinski’s ear and lobbies for a chance to return punts. I don’t care that he might be the best man for the job, especially since receiver Davone Bess is a mental mess, unable to catch a pass or a punt.
There is no way Chudzinski should risk putting his best defensive player on special teams.
I’m not minimizing the importance of the kicking game and what speedy Benjamin, nicknamed “The Rabbit,” could do. Benjamin already won the Browns (3-5) one game this season with his 79-yard punt return for a TD in a 37-24 home victory over Buffalo on Oct. 3. A fourth-round pick last season, Benjamin has an 86-yard kickoff return this year and five career punt returns of 30 or more yards.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Benjamin was underutilized by Chudzinski and his staff, mainly because of his size. He went down following an ankle tackle, when he planted and twisted his knee, with 2:20 remaining in Sunday’s 23-17 loss at Kansas City.
Colleges use starters on special teams all the time. But in the NFL, which seems to have a specialist for everything, it seems to be flirting with disaster.
Perhaps tight end Kellen Winslow suffering a broken leg on an onsides kick at Dallas in 2004 is too fresh in my mind.
Perhaps it’s because I believe the Browns could find a return man on the street or get one in trade before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
In his fourth year, Haden, the seventh overall pick in 2010, is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Obviously he’s interested in some SportsCenter highlight plays that punt returns might provide.
Asked about Haden volunteering for punts, Chudzinski chuckled.
“He’s always out there doing it whenever he can get in there and get it just to show that he’s ready,” Chudzinski said.
Chudzinski seems to realize the hits Haden would take in that role.
“It’s not my first choice,” Chudzinski said. “Until we find somebody else that can do it and has done it before … Joe can catch and obviously he can make plays with the ball in his hand, but Davone is going to be our primary returner right now.”
That isn’t encouraging since Bess is among the league leaders in dropped passes and muffed a punt Sunday with 7:02 remaining.
But with eight games left, the division title and playoff berths are far from decided. Chudzinski could sabotage the Browns’ chances by assigning Haden to such dangerous duty.
Chudzinski can listen to Haden’s chatter, give him a couple chances a week at practice and make sure the Browns’ front office is looking for another rabbit.