SEATTLE—Leon Washington's internal clock is ticking.
Not that kind of internal clock; the one that serves as a metronome for the elite returners in the NFL – the one that pulsates faster and ticks louder with each day between scoring returns. So you can imagine what’s going on inside Washington, as his string of returns without a trip to the end zone has reached 109 – kickoffs (57) and punts (52).
Seahawks. He also had three in 2007 and another in 2008, while playing for the New York Jets.
Those seven scoring returns on kickoffs rank second in NFL history, one behind Josh Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns. Washington’s 101- and 99-yard scoring returns against the San Diego Chargers in Week 3 of the 2010 season are the longest in franchise history, and he added a 92-yarder in Week 14 against the San Francisco 49ers that season.
So yes, Washington is itching – and ticking – to break another, and if it happens in Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Cardinals in Arizona, all the better.
“You have that anticipation,” he said. “But I’ve just got to keep reminding myself, ‘OK, just keep preparing. It will happen. So just keep preparing.’ That’s what I’ve been focused on.”
And it’s a shared vision. Also focused on Washington accomplishing his individual goal, in the context of it only being beneficial to the team achieving its goals, are those who block for him – especially Michael Robinson, the special teams co-captain along with Washington last season; and Heath Farwell, who led the league in coverage tackles in 2011.
“Guys like Mike Rob and Heath, the other leaders on special teams, know how badly I would like to have that record,” Washington said. “So we’re working on just getting it.
“We did a really good job of scouting ourselves this year, to see how we can improve. We feel like we’ve got a really good game plan coming into this season, so we feel like we going to have an opportunity to get it.”
Washington actually returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in a three-point loss to the Browns in Cleveland last season, but it was nullified by a penalty. In 2010, he had a career-long 84-yard punt return against the Carolina Panthers, and just missed scoring when the punter clipped his heel and Washington went down at the 2-yard line.
But those close calls are just reminders of how close Washington is to tying – and surpassing – Cribbs’ record; as well as breaking his first punt return for a score.
“We had some opportunities where we could have taken advantage of it, for the returner and the team,” Washington said. “But almost is not good enough.”
Again, his teammates share his anxiety and eagerness.
“Ah man, Leon has been very close,” Robinson said. “That’s a big goal of our special teams this year, is to get him in the end zone as much as possible and affect field position in every game in a positive way.”
Washington has been doing just that as long as he’s been playing the game. He is the only player in the history of Florida State University to score five different ways – rushing, receiving, kickoff return, punt return and, as the gunner on punt coverage, a fumble return.
“I always took pride in just being a football player, being able to do a whole bunch of stuff,” Washington said.
And his versatility and productivity in college was just an extension of what he had done at Andrew Jackson High School in Jacksonville, and had been doing since he started playing the sport.
“I was a do-it-all guy,” Washington said, recalling his days in Little League football. “The coach would say, ‘We need Leon to punt, and be the holder, and do everything.’
“Same thing in high school. I never came off the field, for the same reason.”
In the NFL, Washington is unique even among the fraternity of elite returners because he handles kickoffs and punts. In 2010, he averaged 25.6 yards on kickoff returns and a career-best 11.3 on punts. Last season, it was 25.2 and 11.3. He has ranked among the Top 11 in the league in both categories each season, and no other returner in the NFL has done that the past two seasons.
“You just have to understand that Leon is a special athlete, and it takes a special athlete to be able to do what he does,” Robinson said. “People don’t understand, just looking at the flight of the ball on kickoffs is way different than looking at it on punts.
“On punts, you’ve got to read the nose and the tip of the ball. And on kickoffs, they try to trick him and kick it close to the sideline. It’s all due to the respect they have from him and his talent.”
Sunday, the Seahawks will have to deal with another dynamic punt returner. Patrick Peterson set a league record in his rookie season with the Cardinals by returning four punts for 80-plus yards. So to one-up him is added incentive for Washington and his special blockers.
“I’m excited about this Sunday,” Robinson said. “It will be our first real chance to get Leon going. It’s all about us doing our job and executing it and letting him go ahead and do what he does.”