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Sams' next return will be to the field

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens return specialist B.J. Sams has watched the videotape several times. His right leg was stuck in the ground when someone grabbed it, and then he felt the force of a helmet and shoulder come crashing down on his ankle. At first, Sams thought it was just a mild sprain and he would be playing again to field the next punt or kickoff.

Instead, his season ended with a broken ankle on a cold, rainy night in Cincinnati on Nov. 30, and a lot of the Ravens' playoff aspirations went with him. Through the midway point of last season, there was constant chatter about Baltimore's rejuvenated offense. But Sams was as much of a spark as any offensive player.

Sams' returns repeatedly gave the Ravens great field position. His absence was never more evident than in the Ravens' 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, when the Ravens could muster only two field goals.

"My absence hurt a lot as far as providing field position for the offense," said Sams, who was placed on injured reserve Dec. 4. "I'm not saying I'm the main reason we lost that game because one person doesn't make a team. But I think we were just starting to come together as far as special teams."

In retrospect, Sams' broken ankle was the biggest injury of the 2006 season, and his rehabilitation is one of the biggest offseason stories. He estimates that he is about 50 percent recovered now but that he should be ready for training camp. Besides the fracture, he also suffered nerve and ligament damage around the injured ankle.

At the time of the injury, Sams, 26, was 10th in the NFL in kickoff returns (25.7-yard average) and seventh in punt returns (10.6).

Sams was finally showing great vision, speed and instincts, and he was coming off one of his best games as a Raven. Against the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 19, he had punt returns of 65 and 59 yards and also returned three kickoffs for 91 yards in a 24-10 Ravens' win.

"I had definitely started to find my groove," Sams said. "The other players were complementing me, and everyone was noticing how special teams were starting to click."

But then the season was over. With the injury came many sleepless nights. Sams said he got through the first couple of weeks with frequent visits by teammates Clarence Moore, Jamal Lewis and Ray Lewis. A lot of players go into isolation while undergoing rehabilitation because they don't feel like they're a part of the team, but Sams was just the opposite.

"The pain, at first, was excruciating," Sams said. "You can't lift weights. You can't go to practice. I continued to go to the facility because the guys always encouraged me, they always told me how badly they wanted me back. Jamal was with me a lot. Ray kept telling me to keep my head up, and how he had been through this before and came back."

Sams had screws removed from his ankle last week. Next week, he'll start running on a treadmill and continue ankle-strengthening exercises. Neither Sams nor the Ravens are in a rush to get him back on the field. After all, it's only March, months away from training camp.

Sams is committed to being ready. He finally proved himself in his third season. There were no problems holding on to the ball. When he saw a hole, there was no hesitation, just acceleration. He also established himself as a part-time gunner on the punt team. Several times last season, he hustled down the field to down a punt inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

After this season, Sams says he will become an unrestricted free agent. He has to prove that he has fully recovered from the injury, and also that he will continue to develop into one of the league's top punt returners.

"I've always tried to take a step one way and get them going that way, and then cut it back," Sams said. "That was how I was taught in college. Now that some of them have caught onto it, I just try to see a hole, burst through it and go. When I get to training camp, I doubt that I will be gun-shy. I'm not going to think about it a whole lot because I want to continue where I left off last season."


Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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