Josh Morgan returned a total of 14 punts in four seasons at Virginia Tech and none in his first five seasons as a pro. But that didn’t deter the Redskins.
With their return game mired in a season-long slump, the team needed a spark. And Morgan’s speed, sure hands and “natural running skills” made him an ideal candidate in the eyes of the coaching staff.
So last Sunday in Dallas, Morgan had a new job heaped upon his existing duties as a wide receiver and the team’s primary kickoff returner. Now, he was the Redskins’ punt returner, too.
Special teams coordinator Keith Burns “just came to me and said he needed me to go out and do it,” Morgan said after practice Friday. “I never really returned punts ever in a game. In college I did, but even that was very rare. But he needed me to step up and do it, so I did.”
Morgan returned four punts in his debut at AT&T Stadium, averaging a modest 4.3 yards per. The first return was his longest -- and it was definitely the riskiest.
Dallas punter Chris Jones booted the ball 50 yards down to Morgan, who was standing at the Redskins’ 14-yard line. The prudent play would have been to signal for a fair catch. But Morgan didn’t, much to everyone’s surprise. Instead, he fielded the ball only a few feet in front of the hard-charging Cowboys rookie B.W. Webb, who had pulled up because he assumed Morgan had signaled for a fair catch.
But Morgan sidestepped a befuddled Webb and gained nine yards.
“The way I look at it is I’m big enough to take the hit,” Morgan said. “If he’s going to hit me, he’s going to hit me. But if I make him miss, I might make somebody else miss and take it to the house.”
Coach Mike Shanahan was able to smile about the play a few days later, although he wasn’t amused at the time.
“Well, you could tell he has no fear catching the ball,” Shanahan said with sarcastic grin. “I’m not sure that was a good decision, but he has no fear. He’s got some natural running skills, so we’re going to give him a shot.”
Morgan’s other three returns were for six, four and -2 yards. He wasn’t afforded much room to operate as Dallas’ coverage teams were on top of him almost as soon as the ball arrived.
Morgan replaced rookie Chris Thompson as the Redskins’ kickoff returner three games ago. Then when Thompson was made inactive for last week’s game in Dallas, he became the punt returner, as well.
Although Morgan had not returned punts in a game since his days at Virginia Tech -- he returned just one as a senior and four as a junior -- he rotated in during special teams drills in training camp.
“It’s a big learning curve,” Morgan said. “But at the end of the day, it’s still football. The weather controls so much of it when it comes to punt game. It’s all about the wind and whether he’s a left-footed punter or a right-footed punter.”
In recent days, Morgan has been consulting with teammates who have experience returning punts.
“I’ve been picking all of their brains,” he said. “The hardest part, Santana [Moss] always tells me, is catching the ball. I’m always going to catch the ball.”
Morgan’s second season in Washington hasn’t gone exactly as he had expected. A year after being targeted more than any other receiver on the team, he’s been on the field for 118 snaps on offense—which ranks behind Pierre Garçon, Leonard Hankerson and Moss.
His new roles on special teams, however, have given him a boost as well as a new way to contribute.
“They still got me back there,” Morgan said, asked if he expects to return punts the rest of the season. “Whatever the team needs me to do to help us win, I’m going to do it. I feel like I’ve got the talent and the ability to contribute in any way possible, whether it’s receiving, returning, blocking, special teams. If they want me to play running back, I’ll do it. I mean, they have had me in the backfield blocking."
After a pause, Morgan smiled and added: "I’m that whatever-it-takes guy.”