Few plays turn a game the way a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown can.
Often the players who make those plays didn't really figure much in their team's original plans.
Only two rookies rank among the top 10 in both punt and kickoff returns this season and they'll both be on the field on Sunday when the Redskins play the Tennessee Titans. Neither could be termed highly touted, coveted or sought after.
Brandon Banks was an undrafted free agent who failed to survive the Redskins' final roster cut, then was brought back to the practice squad. The season was a month old before he got on the field and he returned his first punt 53 yards to set up a touchdown.
Marc Mariani of the Titans was a seventh-round pick, the 222nd overall, and he thought the call bringing that news was a prank. He had played in college at Montana with Titans coach Jeff Fisher's son Brandon, who phoned Mariani from the Titans' office to say the team had selected him.
The Titans, like the Redskins, needed to boost their returns game. Neither Banks nor Mariani escaped attention from the Redskins' staff.
"We broke down 42 returners because we were in need of a returner and both of them were on our list," special teams coordinator Danny Smith said. "I would have loved to have Mariani, who can do both (punt and kick returns) and also cover on kickoffs. Guys like that, their value to the football team is, in my opinion, unbelievable."
They bring value without being valued. Teams don't expend high draft picks (or sometimes even lower ones) on specialists, who may not play "regular" positions well enough to warrant selection. Their impact on special teams may not outweigh perceived negatives. Banks, listed on the roster at 5-7, 155 pounds, faced concerns about his size and durability. Mariani played at what used to be called the NCAA's 1-AA level.
"There may be some deficiencies in other areas but it's a special skill when you can return," Smith said. "Obviously Brandon Banks has had some success in a limited amount this season and Marc Mariani as well. That's what makes them different, that's what makes them special. Nobody thinks enough of them, yet when they get their opportunities they cash in on them."
He's preaching to the choir. Mariani remembered the draft, expanded to three days this past April, as "a frustrating experience" as he waited for a call, only to think that it was a joke when it finally came.
Banks has a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to his credit; Mariani returned one 98 yards for a score. Banks ranks fourth in the NFL in punt return average (13.3), Mariani fifth (12.7). Banks is seventh in kickoff return average (27.0), though he leads all rookies, and Mariani is ninth ((26.2).
Banks transferred from junior college to Kansas State, where he returned four kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior. Mariani, who returned three punts and one kickoff for touchdowns, walked on at Montana and earned a scholarship as a junior, where Brandon Fisher played linebacker.
"We as a staff are not surprised at what Marc has been able to do," Jeff Fisher said. "I personally watched Marc do it for three years and felt like his production at that level would translate to this level."
QUOTABLE: "Most people on the outside looking in look at a 1-8 team and say, 'How can it feel so good?' I have a Super Bowl ring and this is up there. It feels good. We've worked so hard. To come up short week after week and to finally break through feels good." – Buffalo Bills linebacker Reggie Torbor after the Bills ended their winless streak with a 14-12 win over the Detroit Lions. ... "It ain't over yet. We can still make 10-6. I know that's optimistic." – Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen on his 3-6 team. ... "Sometimes you play lights out, literally, and sometimes you just don't have it." – New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck after the 33-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in which power failures and a darkened stadium interrupted the game in the third quarter.
AROUND THE NFL: Great rivalry between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots gets revived Sunday in Foxborough, Mass. The last five meetings (including the 2006 AFC title game) have been decided by seven points or fewer. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has passed for at least 300 yards in four of Indy's five road games this season and 32 in his career, an NFL record. His Patriots counterpart, Tom Brady, has won 24 consecutive home starts, one shy of the NFL record held by Brett Favre when he played for the Green Bay Packers (1995-98). ... Well-traveled Randy Moss, now of the Titans, needs one reception to reach 950 in his career. He'd be the ninth player in NFL history to hit that number. ... Weird note from the St. Louis Rams' OT loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams did not allow a single third-down conversion in 11 tries by the Niners. The trump card there? The Rams are 0-4 on the road. No NFC West team has a winning record on the road (and the Niners are also 0-4 away). ... The New York Jets are the only team in NFL history to win road games in overtime in consecutive weeks. ... The Lions lost a record 25th consecutive road game, breaking their own mark set in 2001-03. They visit the Cowboys Sunday. ... The Houston Texans are last in the NFL in pass defense and opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 110.2. If all of the quarterbacks who played against them were one person, he'd have passed for 2,824 yards, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions while being sacked 14 times. Ominous portent for the slumping Texans. They're 0-4 all-time against the Jets and quarterback Matt Schaub has a knee injury that may hamper him. ... Weird statistical note. The Giants have not scored a touchdown on their first possession in 11 consecutive games, the second-longest such streak in the NFL behind the Bills (16). ... Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is two touchdown passes away from surpassing Vinny Testaverde (49) as the franchise's all-time leader.
Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.