SAN JOSE, Calif. — The sight of Steve Smith Sr., 36 years old and the only accomplished receiving option on his team's roster, settling under a punt as opposing players sprint toward him looking to deliver a crushing hit is enough to provide any Ravens' fan with a significant amount of angst.
For Ravens special teams coordinator and associate head coach Jerry Rosburg, it spurs a far different emotion.
"I'm excited to have him back there, myself," Rosburg said. "I see him trot back there, and it gives me a lot of confidence."
Rosburg confirmed on Thursday that Smith will remain the Ravens' primary punt returner, maintaining that the wide receiver is the team's best option in that role. It would be hard to argue that point from purely a production standpoint.
Named to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in 2001, Smith was once considered one of the NFL's best at the job. He has nearly 1,700 career return yards and six return touchdowns. Even in his 15th and final season, Smith is the Ravens' top playmaker by a wide margin and still one of the NFL's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands.
But he also is one of the players the Ravens can least afford to lose. As the Ravens look for some big plays on special teams, they are playing with fire by potentially subjecting Smith to big hits and a greater injury risk. Smith, though, disagrees with that perception.
"You look at [Terrell Suggs], he wasn't hurt on a punt return and he's one of our top players on defense," Smith said. "Football has a degree of injuries and I don't think really on any play there's a higher percentage or a lesser percentage. If you're going to get hurt, you're going to get hurt in this game. That's just a fact."
Rosburg acknowledged that the potential for injury is "always a factor" when the coaching staff is mulling the return spot.
"But the way we look at it, we want to have our best football team out there, and the best players for [those] positions are the guys that are going to help us win," he said. "I can assure you, Steve Smith is excited to be back there. He's a competitor. He loves playing football. He likes having the ball in his hands, and he's the best guy we have."
After jettisoning Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones in February, the Ravens had an open competition to fill his role over the summer. Cornerback Asa Jackson offered the most explosiveness, but he had trouble hanging onto the ball. Fellow cornerback Lardarius Webb has done it before although he's dealt with myriad injuries in recent seasons.
Wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) has good hands — he was the team's kick returner against Denver — but coach John Harbaugh said that he wanted somebody with a little more experience fielding punts.
So when Denver Broncos punter Britton Colquitt jogged onto the field early in the second quarter last Sunday, it was Smith who came off the Ravens' sideline and got ready to catch the first punt. He had been handling punts throughout training camp practices and telling Harbaugh that he wanted the job.
Still, it was moderately surprising that he got it. Smith hadn't returned a punt in a regular-season game since the 2010 season. You'd have to go back to the 2005 season for the last time that he was really the Panthers' primary punt returner.
Smith certainly didn't look rusty. He returned one punt in the third quarter for 22 yards, giving the Ravens the ball at the 40-yard line. Later in the quarter, he fielded a punt just as it was about to bounce out of bounds, and tiptoed up the sideline for an extra 10 yards.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mel Gray (1997) and Michael Lewis (2007) are the only two players 36 years or older who have returned 16 or more punts in a season. Assuming last week wasn't just a one-shot deal — and Rosburg and Harbaugh indicated that it wasn't — Smith could soon join that company.
"It's an option," Smith said when asked if he expects to be the primary punt returner going forward. "I'm an option out there, just like I'm an option in practice. There's really no difference than being a receiver. I've got to make the catches when my number is called."
Smith believes that returning punts is not as dangerous as some think. His reasoning was that a returner can call for a fair catch or let the ball bounce and simply avoid taking a hit.
"Punt returns are actually one of those plays where you actually can control a lot more than people anticipate," Smith said. "The player understands when he's out there on the punt return, I can fair catch the ball, I cannot catch it or I can return it. I have options. As a receiver, I have no options. I either catch it or I don't. I get hit or I don't. I can't fair catch a pass and not get hit. That's kind of the distinct difference with the ability to control things on punt returns that you don't have the luxury to do at certain positions."
Some, though, believe that using top players to return punts is putting them at unnecessary risk. Punt returners have to field balls in traffic and are vulnerable to big hits from opponents who have gathered a head of steam, or even from teammates who lose track of where they are on the field. Jones sustained a knee injury in the first game of 2013 when Ravens safety Brynden Trawick ran into him as he prepared to gather a punt.
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Aware of the risk, the New York Giants have removed star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from return duties. Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell is pondering this week whether to use his leading 2014 receiver Golden Tate on returns after he got banged up fielding a punt last Sunday.
However, there are plenty of coaches who aren't as cautious. The Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll has used Pro Bowl defensive backs Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman on punt returns. The NFL's leading receiver last season, Antonio Brown remains the Pittsburgh Steelers' punt returner.
Asked last year if he's worried about Brown getting injured, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters, "I don't live in my fears. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber return man, so that's what you do with those guys — you play."
Harbaugh and the Ravens are adopting a similar approach with Smith.
"I've answered it a number of times and it's the same answer. You outweigh it by what gives you the best chance to win," Harbaugh said. "That's really what it boils down to — what gives you the best chance to win this game and what gives you the chance to be the best team we can be going forward."