For all his talents and Pro Bowl stature, running back Eric Metcalf is like the car your grandmother drove only to church on Sundays. Underused. Though he is clearly the Cleveland Browns' meal ticket, last season he touched the ball from scrimmage only two more times than Touchdown Tommy Vardell—who scored just three rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons. Brown coach Bill Belichick decided that would change this year.
Before Cleveland's opener in Cincinnati on Sunday, Belichick said he planned to get the ball to Metcalf 20 times per game this season, six more than his average of 14 a game in '93. In the Browns' first opportunity to run up his mileage, however, Metcalf touched the ball only 14 times and gained no yards in seven rushing attempts, making him less productive than Vardell (eight yards rushing) or even punter Tom Tupa, who covered two yards while running out of kicking formation for the NFL's first-ever two-point conversion.
But there was this: Metcalf broke open the game with the longest punt return for a touchdown in Brown history, a Forrest Gump-like 92-yard second-quarter dash that sent Cleveland to a 28-20 victory. Sometimes one touch will do.
Standing on his own eight-yard line while the Cleveland return team aligned itself like a white picket fence parallel to the sideline, Metcalf thought, If I can get by one man, I can get to the wall. He did that easily enough and then noticed, as he said later, that "my guys were layin' people out all over the field." When Eric Turner took care of the last impediment. Bengal punter Lee Johnson, Metcalf had clear sailing, spread his arms out in glory and strode into the end zone from the Bengals' 40-yard line.
The punt return was Metcalf's fourth for a score in his career, another Cleveland record, and his first without being touched. It came less than three minutes after Randy Baldwin zipped 85 yards virtually unscathed with a kickoff for a touchdown. Metcalf and Baldwin—call them the Untouchables—saved the day for Cleveland, whose offense suffered a brownout after the two returners extended the Browns' lead to 25-7.
"I don't know how many times Eric got the ball, but we got a 92-yard punt return out of him," Belichick said afterward. "That's what counts. The biggest thing is to get him the ball where he has a chance. He has to have a chance."
"I welcome getting the ball more," Metcalf said. "I'm starting to get some respect around the league. If I get more opportunities to get the ball, I'll have the chance to produce even more. And if I produce even more, then I can't help but get more respect."
So what if Metcalf produced nothing on the ground against the Bengals? He averaged 28.7 yards running back punts—yet another club record—and reinforced his value to the club, no matter his workload this season.
Happy new year, Cleveland. And many happy returns.