See, back in April of 2004, Gary Zauner had nothing but high praise for a player he viewed as sure-handed and quick-footed. B.J. Sams out of McNeese State was his apparent front runner for lending an opportunity of competition for the spot of return specialist. Add in the fact that the young, shifty receiver was versatile enough to play running back at times and eventually learn a bit as a reserve defensive back, and you have several options to work with.
However, Ozzie Newsome was not so high on B.J. Sams. He was determined to have Kentucky’s Derek Abney, a small but fast wide receiver who set school and NCAA records for his kick and punt return abilities. Abney tended to succeed more so on kickoffs. It was Gary Zauner who continually argued with Ozzie to draft Sams, but Ozzie would not hear of it. So, Abney was picked in the seventh round to compete with the incumbent Lamont Brightful who had been so inconsistent that he earned monikers from the fans, such as Lamont “Frightful."
Finally, after hounding him enough to the point where he was getting fatigued by the entire debate, Newsome gave in and permitted Zauner to make a play for Sams immediately following the draft. What Baltimore tends to offer for undrafted free agents is sheer opportunity. Often, names are dropped on the phone to players that the front office may have a vested interest in simply to depict what possibilities may lay forth for players in Baltimore. Names like Will Demps, Bart Scott, and Priest Holmes immediately come to mind. Even now, the team has seemed to find a bright young player in current nickel back Ronnie Prude.
Zauner was informed by Newsome that he could not only pursue and obtain B.J. Sams under an un-drafted contract, usually commanding very little money, in fact much less than a lot of other teams, but that also if he would end up making the 53-man roster, he’d owe Zauner $2,000. Luckily, this was a rare occurrence that Newsome’s premonitions were incorrect, in that he predicted Abney would beat out Brightful for the job. As it turns out, Sams injured his thumb prior to the first preseason game, but was able to come back during a later preseason contest in which he ran a punt back for a touchdown, negated by an arguable penalty committed by Musa Smith.
That solidified him for the position of new Ravens kick and punt return man. What it had shown to the fans was what Zauner had seen all along, and more specifically at training camp. As John Feinstein notes in his book Next Man Up, Zauner was elated when he would ask each competitor, Brightful, Abney, and Sams, among others, how many drops they had each day. It seemed every day the others would list at least one, if not several more, while Sams consistently replied that he had no dropped catches during practice returns. Derek Abney would go on to injure his shoulder before Sams even came back, and was correspondingly placed on injured reserve since he did propose great potential. Brightful continued to lose confidence and put the ball on the ground. So, Ozzie Newsome was out $2,000. However, the two-thousand dollar man has shown to be quite worth it!
Sams has not recorded a touchdown since two consecutive, nationally staged games in 2004 as an elusive rookie, when he ran game-changing punts back against the Washington Redskins on a fake handoff to Deion Sanders on Sunday Night Football, and again on Monday Night Football the following week against the Kansas City Chiefs. The former broke a 10-10 standstill with the Redskins and was the eventual game-winning play. Against the Chiefs, he tied it up at 17 with a runback that erupted those at M & T Bank Stadium, earning yet more praise, this time coming from announcers Al Michaels and John Madden.
Sams had made a name for himself not only on the team, but also around the league. He continues to provide to the team consistent sure-handedness as expected by the coaching staff, and mostly, good decisions. Earlier in the year, something the team had not even really practiced that often or even lately, according to Coach Brian Billick, Sams fielded a kickoff that was heading out of bounds. With his one foot firmly planted out-of-bounds, Sams was brilliant in having our opening drive start out the Ravens 40-yard-line, since it is penalized to kick the ball out of bounds on kickoffs. Smart thinking by Sams rewarded the team on the field.
Off the field, Sams has made a couple of bad decisions when he has gotten in his vehicle and driven home under the influence. Two times in 14 months, including very recently and during training camp of 2005, Sams has been pulled over in the same vicinity on Interstate 83 and charged with a DUI. Sams has yet to stand judged or to be handed a possible 4-game suspension. This could prove to hurt us, as Sams showed this past Sunday.
Earning well-deserved honors as AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, Sams collected over 200 yards in total on returns during the bout with the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. He was able to churn out three stellar runs, with one punt return (often his best feature) portraying those early signs of elusiveness, as he virtually made a huge run occur by himself with spins and cutbacks, with some help by good blocks down field, one of the final ones being made by safety Dawan Landry, before being tripped up by two defenders.
It was not long ago that fans in Baltimore were calling for Sams’ head because he has not been able to break off runs for touchdowns, let alone incredibly long runs, besides the fact that he has been nabbed for his second DUI. There have been some decent returns dispersed throughout the season thus far, but nothing the likes of what he accomplished on Sunday. The third long run he provided had ESPN’s Chris Berman and Tom Jackson spouting at the mouth, with Berman proclaiming, “He could go…a large percentage of the way!”, a changeup in his normal “He could go all the way!” routine, to the sound of Jackson’s chuckles.
Indeed, Sams accounted for a large percentage of our team’s production on Sunday. After all, without Sams, supplemented with a struggling offense for much of the game, it begs the question, where would we be? Certainly, Sams provided a spark to the team that ignited into a fire. He is the latest flame that has us hopeful fans in a dazed frenzy. At 8-2, we can entrust the ball in Sams’ hands, and even get big returns. Returns like the dividends that have paid off so well, and as much as $2,000 straight out of Ozzie Newsome’s pocket.
The only woe in all of this is that we could be minus Sams later in the year, since his second DUI constitutes as NFL suspension material, in a league forever cracking down. As our designated return specialist, now no longer seen in any other situations at his other “R”-position listings at running back, receiver, or reserve defensive back, many wish he could also find himself a designated driver. Or better yet, simply become the designated driver and no longer tip back one too many.
It could prove to affect our team more than we know, as the oft-overlooked and underrated Sams continues to be consistently productive, and among the top return men in the game. We may just need him down the stretch, as we gear up for a potential postseason run, and at this point, we simply cannot be sans Sams!