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Dave Toub insists that in the modern NFL, punt returners must be aggressive

Kansas City’s special teams coach refuses to set a yard line where punts should be allowed to go into the end zone.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

When Kansas City Chiefs special teams coordinator (and assistant head coach) Dave Toub took his weekly turn with the media on Thursday, it was yet another session where reporters wanted to question the Chiefs’ longtime assistant coach about a decision made by a punt returner.

In this case, the returner was Richie James. The punt was near the end of the third quarter in last Sunday’s 25-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. With Kansas City trailing 17-16, James fielded Brad Robbins’ punt one yard deep in the end zone and took it out. He was run out of bounds at the 9-yard line — and many Chiefs fans were left wondering what James had been thinking.

“All week long, we had this special play that we [had] practiced,” explained Toub. “It looked really good in practice. He was anxious to make it work, [but] we just didn’t get the kick we wanted. He tried to force it — and unfortunately, we didn’t pop it out of there.”

Toub said that James’ teammates had blocked the play just as it had been practiced — and if the ball hadn’t been kicked so high and deep, it would have been a special play for his unit. Toub also said that James accepted the responsibility for a poor decision.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

But for James, it seemed to be par for the course.

“I wanted the ball more than anybody,” said the wide receiver in the locker room. “So I made the decision to field it.”

According to James, making such an aggressive decision comes with the territory in which he lives: being a reserve wide receiver whose main job is returning kicks.

“As a returner — and as a receiver, too — you don’t get the ball a lot,” he explained. “So the only time you see the ball is in punt return. So that’s why I’m aggressive right now.”

Is that an unnatural position for him to be in?

“I’ve done it for six years, so I guess you can say that,” said the former New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers wideout.

Toub is just fine with James’ aggressive mindset — and, not for the first time this season, said that at this level of the modern game, this is the way his returners have the best chance for success.

“The punters are so good, they can spin that ball, land it at the two and make it stop,” Toub reminded his listeners. “So if the ball’s hanging and it’s around [the] eight [or] nine, we [want] to try to catch it — because if you let it drop, it’s inevitably going to be inside the five. So we try to feel them if we can — and steal them when we can.

“I want him to stay aggressive because you want your punt returner to [have an] aggressive mentality — because if he [doesn’t], he’s never gonna get any returns.”

Toub noted that on James’ other noteworthy punt return of the day — the 27-yarder that gave Kansas City the ball on the Cincinnati 37-yard line with less than five minutes remaining — that’s the mindset that gave the Chiefs a chance to put the game away.

“If he wasn’t aggressive on the one long one he had,” said the coach, “he would have fair-caught it — and we would have got nothing out of it. So you’ve got to be careful how you coach these guys.”

And Toub doesn’t want to hear about anybody’s high school or college coach who told their players that any punt inside the 10-yard line must be allowed to go into the end zone. He’s adamant that in today’s NFL, that isn’t the right approach.

“I think it’s play-to-play,” he declared. “It’s punter-to-punter. It’s game-to-game. I think it changes all the time.

“I’m not going to just set a number — like it was in the old days when it was, ‘10 yards and don’t touch it.’

“I mean, it’s simple to say that — but that’s not the way it is anymore. It’s just not.”

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