Praying for Moses

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August 31, 2004
Praying for Moses

by Keith Weiland

The littlest man on the Texans roster may have been the most difficult one to see during the 2004 preseason. J.J. Moses’ case for a 2004 roster spot was made the year before, during a 2003 season in which he was tenth in the league in kickoff returns.

With a track record now captured by celluloid, Moses, already standing at just sixty-six inches, agreed to lay even lower during training camp and let a gaggle of other hopefuls try to rip the job from him. Moses has been challenged, but he has not yet been vanquished.

With cutdown day looming in the days ahead, the littlest man on the roster hopes to stay hidden from The Turk long enough to retain that title of littlest man on the roster.

It won’t be easy. Moses is sometimes listed as a wide receiver, but in reality, he is used exclusively as a returner. Moses will likely see as much time on the field as a receiver as long snapper Bryan Pittman will at tight end.

By giving the final roster spot to a player used exclusively as a returner, the Texans may be neglecting the space for a reserve to develop and protect from other teams. But where is the commandment that reads “Thou shalt not use a roster spot for a return specialist”?

As both a kickoff and punt returner in 2003, Moses typically handled the football more times than a backup running back and more times than any wide receiver not named Andre Johnson. And by keeping a good handle on the football, Moses never fumbled away his opportunity to return to the job this season.

His statistics, however, imply that there may be better alternatives. Moses’ 23.4-yard average on kickoff returns was only two yards away from 32nd overall and more than five yards off the pace of the league leader.

Moses did have several long returns, juking and shaking his way upfield like a pinball, but he was never able to take one all the way to the promise land. While Moses ran back kickoff returns of more than forty yards four times last season, never once did he run one into the endzone.

Even worse, Moses only averaged 6.8 yards per punt return in 2003, a figure that put him at 27th overall last season. It begs the question that even if Moses is still the best returner in training camp, as he has been to date, then how much worse could the Texans’ return game be if Moses wasn’t around?

But punt return statistics don’t always tell the whole story. Ironically, that can be proven by using even more statistics.

The Texans had 40 punt returns in 2003 (36 of them by Moses) and only eight fair catches (seven by Moses). The eight fair catches tied for the fewest number in the league (led by Cincinnati and their main returner, Peter Warrick).

So what, right? The Texans defense stunk last year and didn’t force enough punting scenarios, so the Moses must have just had fewer fair catch opportunities.

Wrong. Crunching the punt return numbers a little further, the Texans were second in the league in terms of a returns-to-fair catch ratio (40 punts / 8 fair catches = 5.0). Moses himself had a ratio of 5.1. Only the Chargers had a higher team ratio last year (5.4). This proves that Moses signaled for a fair catch less often than his peers.

Not done yet. Taking the average punt return yardage from last year and dividing it by the number of fair catches (which for Houston was 6.7 yards / 8 fair catches = 0.84 and for Moses in particular was 0.97) measures a player’s opportunity and ability for return yardage versus his willingness to make the return. The Texans as a team ranked ninth out of 32 teams in this average. Cincinnati (Warrick), Atlanta (Allen Rossum), and Kansas City (Dante Hall) were the top three teams in this statistic, and all of them have very good punt return units, giving this calculation some merit.

So what do all these numbers really mean? It means that there is more to returning punts than Moses’ 6.8-yard average implies on a stat sheet.

On many occasions last season, Moses chose not to fair catch a punt, and in heavy traffic, he held onto the football without a fumble. Moses was willing to advance it maybe just four or five yards when other returners might have either made the fair catch, or worse, let the ball hit the turf and take their chances on a bounce, thereby cherry-picking the returns that amplified their average return yardage.

And just as fans shouldn’t melt Jabar Gaffney’s punt returns and Kendrick Starling’s kickoff returns into a golden calf, the other ten special teams players on the field blocking for Moses last year contributed significantly to that dull average. It’s hard to measure their effectiveness, but if it is anything like the sophomore 5-11 team as a whole, then it was probably just as mediocre.

There is room on a the Texans’ 53-man roster for return specialist, and until someone proves better, Moses is the man still sitting atop that mountain.

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