Brandon Tate showed his speed this spring. The Bengals are looking for him to rely on it when they sift through their return personnel at training camp.
It's not quite there with street festivals, corn hole, ripping Reds manager Bryan Price's pick-one-out-of-the-hat lineups, or over-and-under-ing Andy Dalton's contract. But bashing Brandon Tate has become a rite of this Cincinnati spring.
OK, so the guy doesn't rip off punt returns like Leodis McKelvin (averaging more than 12 yards per return since 2011) and he doesn't have eight career touchdowns off kick returns like Leon Washington or even the 30 yards per return that Jacoby Jones has averaged in Tate's very own division for the Ravens since 2012.
Since he arrived in Cincinnati in 2011, Tate is snug in the NFL middle at 18th in punt returns and 12th in kick returns.
(He's also got about 40 more returns than McKelvin and Jones, the three-year leaders in punt and kick returns, respectively.)
But Tate could care less about the whispers. On a team with cornerback Adam Jones and wide receiver A.J. Green and a dozen first-round picks, he consistently had one of the two fastest 10-yard dashes on the team this spring; a hallmark of what strength coach Chip Morton calls elite separation and acceleration.
"That's what I've been working on this whole offseason. Just run and run and run. That's all I've been doing," Tate says. "Just hit it, man, and we'll see what happens."
In the three years since Tate suddenly burst in here on Cutdown Day as a waiver claim from the Patriots, he has become the Bengals' all-time leading kick returner with a 24.8-yard average and the second all-time punt returner with 9.3. His body of work includes a big hand in three straight special teams units that have finished in the upper tiers of the NFL rankings, as well as a handful of returns that have won games that have been huge getting the Bengals to the playoffs all three of his seasons here.
And yet even as special teams coach Darrin Simmons extols his virtues of reliability and diligence, he also says he's looking to get more explosive. If that's with Tate, "that's fine." But there are other guys he'll be checking out this training camp, beginning with cornerback Adam Jones doing both and including veteran Danieal Manning in an effort to see if he can reprise his dangerous years with the Bears from 2006-2010 when his 26.8 average returning kicks has held up as fourth on the active list.
Jones has returned just three kickoffs in four seasons with the Bengals, but when he ripped off 63 during his two seasons in Tennessee he averaged more than 26 yards per shot, a figure Tate didn't reach until this year.
Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher is also going to get a shot at doing both and 2013 NFL scouting combine 40-yard silver medalist Onterio McCalebb is going to get another try at kickoffs. And Simmons says not to forget special teams co-captain Cedric Peerman on kickoffs even though he's returned only seven in his four seasons here. In the preseason, he's had returns for 50, 43, and 38 yards.
That's the way it is for most incumbent returners, good or bad. They always seem to be clawing to the edge of the roster.
"Do we want more big plays? Absolutely, we want more explosive plays," Simmons says. "I want other coaches to fear us when the play us. I've been on the other part of that when they didn't fear us. When they were laughing. I want the other teams to fear who we put back there."
Most likely that is going to be Tate again. And Simmons is a lot better with that than the critics.
Jones has played such a key role on defense the past two seasons and has fought to finally stay healthy that it is hard to see him doing a steady diet of punt or kick returns even though his five career punt touchdowns are behind only Devin Hester's 13 on the active list.
Manning, coming off a broken leg in Houston, has returned just one kick in each of the last two years. McCalebb, tentative when he returned kicks last preseason, is struggling to make the roster at his new position of cornerback. Peerman averages 16.1 per kick return in the regular season and although Sanzenbacher returned a punt for a touchdown last season, he has yet to make any kind of return in the regular season.
"When I talk to other coaches…they like Brandon. It's none of the stuff I read around here about him. And he's a team player," Simmons says. "When you look at returners, everybody likes to look at their averages, but you also have to look at decision-making and ball protection. The goal of the play is, and coach (Marvin) Lewis will echo this, we want to have the ball. He's turned it over twice (out of 217 combined returns) and that's pretty impressive."
But the 6-1, 195-pound Tate says he's not satisfied with the club's all-time rankings. Those footsteps at his door are in real time.
"I want to do better for my team and myself. There's competition all the time," Tate says. "I just take it one day at a time. Nothing is going to be given to you. You've got to work for everything."
Tate's 40-yard dash speed is an intriguing mystery. He didn't get timed at his combine because he was coming off ACL surgery and when you ask he shrugs and says, "That's up to you." Given that McCalebb is the only guy that beat him in the 10s and he finished with the second-fastest 40 at the 2013 combine in 4.34 seconds, Tate probably has a sub 4.4-type motor.
And Simmons has been trying to coax him for years to use that speed and not the jukes. He reminded him as recently as Wednesday when the Bengals broke spring camp for the summer.
"What I talked to him about is being committed. He has to be committed to a path that he takes and stays with it. That's something he has to improve on," Simmons says.
It's not the first time Tate, 26, has heard it. Simmons' constant refrain to him has always been, "one decisive cut and go." But he knows it's not as easy as it looks.
"Put yourself in his position," Simmons says. "You've got 20 guys coming down the field at you…on a punt return he's got two guys standing on top of him. That's something we have to do a better job of up front. Better technique holding up inside guys or gunners. Do a better job of eliminating guys to give him an opportunity to get started so he can commit to a line."
It almost seems like those 10-yard times have reinforced Simmons' constant message.
"This year I'm going to focus on that. Try to finish all the way. Just make my decision and go with it," Tate says. "Trust my guys. Just make the one cut and go.
"Yeah, I've got confidence in my (speed), but I've got confidence in my other players. Without them, it would be nothing. So I just have to trust them. I know what they're going to do so I can do what I can do…This year it's going to be the year for me to get over the hump and score a couple of touchdowns."
Simmons isn't ready to put it in ink, yet, because "We're always looking to upgrade our team and someone could bubble up here or it could be Brandon or it could be somebody on another team right now."
But Tate has the proverbial leg up. Simmons has been there when the return game hasn't been as reliable or as productive. He offers a saying in response to what he hears other saying.
"You don't cut your nose off,' he says, "to spite your face."