DAVIE, Fla. Reality has set in for the Miami Dolphins, who are 4-6 and riding a three-game losing streak.
Barring a miracle turnaround, this season will not be about fighting for a playoff berth in Year No. 1 under Joe Philbin. Its about building a foundation and finding players who can make a difference.
Enter Marcus Thigpen.
The former Indiana running back already has found a place in team history. Hes the first Dolphin to score a touchdown on both a punt return and kick return in the same season.
Philbin knows how such exploits can affect opposing coaches and players.
It definitely doesnt make you feel comfortable, thats for sure, the Dolphins head coach said. Special teams has more and more and more a weapon in this league. If you have an excellent return guy, its something were going to spend some our time on.
Thats good news for Thigpen.
I love it, Thigpen said this week about his returning role. Its something Ive been doing for a long time. Its like I got a knack for it. I got speed for it. I definitely love it.
Hes not the only one lovin it.
I think every special teams coach in the league will tell you when youre facing a team and you know they have the ability to score, you start looking to change things up yourself, throw then the proverbial curve ball and not throw the fast ball every time, Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said.
Marcus has put that out there. He has big-play ability, and we have to be ready for anything short kicks, squib kicks all that kind of stuff to try and throw our timing off and thats our next challenge.
Challenges are nothing new for Thigpen.
As a youngster growing up in Detroit, he was involved with drug dealers and caused a friend's death when, while joyriding, he drove a van off the road as a 14-year-old.
The accident helped motivate Thigpen to turn around his life. The boy who idolized former Lions great Barry Sanders became the states 100-meter champ as a high school sprinter.
Undrafted out of college, he failed to stick after being in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos and Candian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Thigpen finally found a home with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats the past two seasons. An outstanding kick returner in college, Thigpen learned how to return punts when he wasnt relaxing by watching cartoons.
Canadian Football League returners know they have more running space due to its 65-yard wide field NFL fields are 53 13 yards wide -- and there are no fair catches, though opposing players must maintain a 5-yard distance to let a returner catch the ball.
By them having to give us 5 yards, I was able to pretty much field every ball, but here (in the NFL) they get in your face, Thigpen said. Oh, I can tell the difference. Thats why you have to look up and then look down to make sure theyre not coming to get you.
In both leagues, protecting the pigskin is vital.
Just being able to go out there and field the punts on a consistent basis it seems like a little thing, but it really starts with that, Rizzi said. Hes done a good job so far with securing the ball. Knock on wood he continues to do so.
Speed alone does not make a punt or kick returner. Not every running back can do it. The job demands excellent field vision, the ability to cut on a dime and lack of fear.
Thigpen ranks fourth (29.4 yards) in the NFL in kickoff-return average and fourth (13.6) in punt-return average. He also has bested Ted Ginn Jr. and Freddie Solomon , who had touchdowns via punt and kick returns during their Dolphins careers but not in the same season.
In last Thursday nights loss at Buffalo, Thigpen returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. He returned a punt 72 yards for a score in the season-opening loss at Houston.
The players who are blocking for him get excited because they know if they can win this block, if we can get this guy to the second level hes got a chance to hit the home run. Rizzi said.
Thigpen previously showed power in Canada, too. In the 2010 season opener, he returned Hamiltons first kickoff of the year for a touchdown and also returned a missed field goal for a score. The following week, Thigpen took a punt to the house.
He became the first Canadian Football League player to score a touchdown five different ways kickoff return, punt return, missed field-goal return, rushing and receiving in one season.
Dont be surprised if the Dolphins try to incorporate Thigpens explosiveness within the offense. But his return skills are why he might have a future in Miami.
Its definitely a great adrenaline rush, Thigpen said. Theres a 50-50 chance Im going to start the game with a kickoff return. Just doing that and giving us that spark right away definitely can help our confidence.