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NFL's returners get their kicks from long runbacks

Don't leave the television when it's time for Miami to kick off against the Buffalo Bills today.

Kick return touchdowns are up in the NFL this season, and the Bills have an apparent mismatch on kickoffs.

The Dolphins' shaky overall team depth is reflected in their special teams. Miami is allowing 29.8 yards a return and is allowing opponents to start drives after kickoffs at the 33.5, on average. Both totals are worst in the league. The Bills' Terrence McGee ranks sixth in the NFL on kickoff returns, with a 28.5-yard average.

Leaguewide, there have been 14 kickoff returns and eight punt returns for scores. That combined total of 22 is only two shy of the total for all of last season. It's a pace that would make 43 for the season, the most since 1978.

NFL teams have been doing a good job of identifying and drafting top college return men. There also are a handful of extremely talented return men in the game, including Chicago's Devin Hester, the Jets' Leon Washington and Buffalo's McGee. Hester and Washington both have three return scores this year.

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Shula's swipe

It had to hurt Bill Belichick this week when Don Shula said the Patriots' record should get an asterisk if they go 16-0.

New England's great coach has stated repeatedly throughout his career how he respects Shula. Shula knew Belichick's late father, Steve, who coached at the Naval Academy. Shula used to be a guest at football clinics and camps at the Naval Academy.

I don't agree with Shula. The Pats aren't videotaping anyone this season. And I don't think the videotaping of opponents signals in the past provided any significant edge, an issue dealt with in this space in September. It will be interesting to see if the Cameragate issue prompts Belichick to push for the undefeated season, rather than rest his starters extensively, if the Pats get to 14-0.

If the Pats go 19-0, there's no question it will be a better achievement than the Dolphins' 17-0 season of 1972. The '72 Dolphins played what ranks as the third easiest schedule since the merger. Only the '75 Vikings and '99 Rams had easier schedules.

Shula has been criticized in some circles because the Dolphins "cheated" in hiring him away from the Colts and had to give up a No. 1 draft choice because they violated anti-tampering rules. This is an unfair rap. Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom never forgave Shula for losing to the Jets in Super Bowl III and wanted to get rid of him. Rosenbloom was shrewd, however. He got rid of Shula and still finagled his way into a draft pick.

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Indy weakness

The Colts stand 32nd in punt coverage after allowing the Pats' Wes Welker to return three punts for 60 yards last week. Welker's last return was a 23-yarder that set up the winning touchdown. It's a chronic problem for Tony Dungy's team. The Colts were 31st in punt coverage last season, 30th in 2005, 32nd in 2004 and 20th in 2003. If Brian Moorman played for the Colts, he would set the NFL record for punts inside the 20. That's because the Colts so often punt from the "plus-side" of the field, since the offense is always driving past midfield.

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Shopper beware

Part of Philadelphia's struggles this year are related to two bad spending sprees in free agency. The Eagles signed defensive end Darren Howard two years ago to a six-year, $25 million deal. Lately he has been a defensive tackle about 12 snaps a game in nickel situations. He has not had a sack in 11 games and has just one takedown in 16 games. Defensive end Jevon Kearse was another spending gamble that did not pay off. He got a $66 million deal in 2004 with $16 million in guaranteed money. A knee injury kept him out of 14 games last year and he has done nothing this year. Juqua Thomas has more or less replaced him as a starter. The Eagles are likely to part ways with both Kearse and Howard after this season.

This shows the risk of giving the head coach too much power in personnel matters, as Andy Reid has had since the Eagles jettisoned Tom Modrak. The coach too often wants to overspend to get a player.

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Long FG risk

Teams should think twice about attempting field goals of 55-or-more yards unless their kicker has a proven cannon for a leg.

In the past three seasons there have been four missed field goals returned 108 yards or more for touchdowns. The fourth was by San Diego's Antonio Cromartie last week. He took Ryan Longwell's 57-yard attempt 109 yards for a score in San Diego's loss at Minnesota. Longwell's career long kick is 55 yards.

In a statistical quirk, Minnesota's Metrodome also was the site of the NFL's longest rushing play -- Tony Dorsett's 99-yard TD.

No Viking got even close to touching Cromartie, but that should not be a shock. Teams bulk up with big guys on the field-goal protection team. Those guys aren't built to chase down what essentially becomes a punt that has far outkicked its coverage.

"It's a lose-lose situation," long snapper Cullen Loeffler said of attempting those long field goals in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune interview. "You don't have your coverage team in and you have primarily blockers, not coverage guys."

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Top 10 jerseys

Reebok this week sent out the ranking of the top 10 selling NFL jerseys for this year. They are:

1. Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson

2. Saints RB Reggie Bush

3. Bears LB Brian Urlacher

4. Colts QB Peyton Manning

5. Packers QB Brett Favre

6. Steelers S Troy Polamalu

7. Titans QB Vince Young

8. Patriots QB Tom Brady

9. Patriots WR Randy Moss

10. Browns QB Brady Quinn

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Ex-Bill report

Defensive tackle Pat Williams still is lighting it up for Minnesota. The Vikings shut down LaDainian Tomlinson last week, holding him to 40 yards on 16 carries.

Offensive tackle Jonas Jennings is out for the year in San Francisco and underwent ankle surgery this week. Jennings is less than halfway through the seven-year, $36 million contract he signed. He has played 21 of 48 games through three seasons.

Travis Henry should find out this week his fate on a possible drug suspension. His appeal will be heard Nov. 16 in Phoenix. A ruling probably won't come until after the Nov. 19 game against Tennessee.

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Onside kicks

The Texans (4-5) suffered a big loss when solid cornerback Dunta Robinson went down for not only the rest of this season but the start of next season, too. He has a ACL tear as well as a severely torn hamstring in which the muscle detached from the bone. Robinson was playing well.

The Titans' defense is fierce. It has not allowed a single touchdown this year in 17 possessions following turnovers.

The Cowboys already have sold out the entire 2008 season.

The Giants are a combined 23-9 in the first half of the season in Tom Coughlin's tenure.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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