If there’s one thing Bobby Rainey lacks, it’s not confidence.
One of the team’s most undersized players also gets every ounce of ability out of his 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame and he saw his efforts get recognized earlier today. The NFL announced Wednesday morning that Rainey has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his work returning punts during Tampa Bay’s 38-31 win over Jacksonville.
“I get a rush out of it,” Rainey said Wednesday of returning kicks and punts. “Any time there’s a challenge I want to be a part of it because I feel like I can overcome it. It doesn’t matter whatever the situation is, I just get a rush from it.”
According to a team press release, Rainey is the first Buccaneers player to earn Special Teams Player of the Week honors since wide receiver Michael Spurlock won the award in Week 16 of the 2009 season. In 2013, Rainey was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award for Week 11 and h joins Ronde Barber and Shelton Quarles as the only Bucs to win Player of the Week Awards in two different categories.
Rainey took advantage of his three opportunities Sunday by picking up 85 total yards (28.3-yard average), including a career-long of 58. That lengthy return came in the second quarter and set up the quarterback Jameis Winston’s 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Doug Martin to put the Buccaneers on top, 13-7.
The 58-yard return was the longest by a Bucs player since 2009 and the seventh longest in team history.
Rainey said he was appreciative of the award and thankful for his special teams teammates that help make positive returns possible.
“For one, nothing happens until those guys block,” Rainey said. “So if they decide they want to let everybody go then I can’t get a return. I can’t go through all 11 guys, so everything happens up front. It’s no different than offense and defense. With that being said, our guys did a great job of blocking at the line of scrimmage and also stopping their gunners.”
Rainey’s 199 punt return yards ranks second in the NFL behind Cleveland’s Travis Benjamin and he’s averaging 13.3 yards per attempt. The fourth-year pro’s three returns of 20-plus yards are tied for the league lead with Benjamin and Miami’s Jarvis Landry.
Rainey didn’t get an opportunity to bring back any kicks Sunday but he’s been handling those duties capably all season, as well. He’s responsible for all eight returns this year and has the Bucs ranked fourth in the league with a 29.9-yard average. Rainey’s also gained at least 20 yards every time he’s decided to head upfield.
Combined, Rainey’s 438 kick and punt return yardage leads the NFL.
One thing he hasn’t been doing much of this year is waiving for fair catches. Rainey’s done so only once and he’s made it work out well through five weeks.
“I feel like the first guy would never make a play on me,” he said. “That’s my mentality, period. No matter if it’s on offense [or special teams]. If I have room to catch to the ball then it means I have room to make a move, and I feel like my move is better than the tackler. It’s not my intention not to call a fair catch but if I can’t make a move then I’ll call a fair catch. I’m going to do the things I need to do to put my team in a position to be good.”
There’s still plenty of season left, but up until now Rainey has shown improvement handling return responsibilities this year compared to his limited opportunities in 2014. He recorded seven of the team’s 23 punt returns last year for an average of 7.9 yards and brought back six of 36 kickoffs for a 26.3-yard average.
Although he returned kicks and punts his freshman and sophomore seasons at Western Kentucky and ran back seven combined kicks in 2013 while a member of both the Browns and Bucs, Rainey said his comfort level is greater this year, especially while waiting under punts.
“When I started out last year I was too anxious and I wasn’t calling any fair catches, no matter how far [coverage] was down or what,” he said. “But now I’m relaxed and being disciplined.”
Rainey’s solid early season averages have helped rank Tampa Bay seventh in the NFL in starting field position during its 60 total drives, according to stats compiled by FootballOutsiders.com. On average, the Bucs have taken over possession just outside their own 30-yard line.
“We have a unique group of running backs with Bobby being one of them – our special teams guy,” Winston said of Rainey after practice. “Special teams wins games for you. When you’re able to flip the field with just one return and get a big play, that’s great.”
Head coach Lovie Smith joined in the praise of Rainey and said the league made a good choice with its recognition.
“It’s very deserving,” Smith said. “Bobby had a good feeling about knowing that he could be a difference in what we’ve been doing. I’m just pleased with that entire running back room. Of course we talked about Doug Martin. Charles Sims has been outstanding and Bobby’s in that room, too. They all made big plays, but Bobby can make you miss in the open field, he has great hands and we need to be able to get more from our kicking game.”