If there was a bright spot to be found in Sunday’s shellacking of the Buffalo Bills by the San Francisco 49ers, it would be the big-play ability again showcased by Leodis McKelvin.
The Bills’ cornerback had an 80-yard touchdown on a punt return called back in the first quarter because of a holding penalty on Jairus Byrd, then followed that up with a 59-yard kick return to set up the offense in San Francisco territory.
Among qualified players (those with at least one return per their team’s games played), McKelvin leads the NFL in punt return average and is third in kick return average.
Even without the 80 yards Sunday, McKelvin’s punt return average of 29.4 leads the league by a wide margin. Cincinnati’s Adam “Pacman” Jones is next a 17.6 average.
“You’ve got 10 guys out there doing their job blocking for me, so the 11th guy’s got to do his job, too, and make sure I get enough yardage for the offense,” McKelvin said.
With an 88-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week Two against Kansas City — the longest such return in the NFL this year — McKelvin now has three career special teams touchdowns.
“He’s all in. He takes a great deal of pride in it,” Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said earlier this season about McKelvin’s return ability. “The guys up in front of him are excited about it. I think we’re getting better play from the guys out there on the corner. Blocking the gunners is probably the best we’ve done since I’ve been here. Those young guys have really done a nice job.”
McKelvin has found a way to contribute despite losing his job as the team’s nickel cornerback after the season opener in New York. He played 22 snaps in that game, but hasn’t been on the field that much since. He saw eight snaps in Week Three against Cleveland, and hasn’t played at all on defense the last two games.
“You have to keep your head up high and just play ball,” he said. “I believe in my talent and ability that I have. I can help this team win. I’m a team player and I’m going to go out there and play team ball.”
McKelvin’s approach has earned the respect of coach Chan Gailey.
“The same thing happened last year if you remember. We started playing Aaron [Williams] a lot more and Leodis went, played special teams and did an outstanding job,” the coach said. “That’s the way he is. He’s a true professional.”
McKelvin joined the Bills as the 11th overall pick out of Troy in 2008. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder has all the athleticism you could ever want for a cornerback, but has struggled at times locating the ball in coverage.
Instead of hanging his head after losing his job, though, he’s worked hard to make an impact in other areas of the game.
“I love football. I don’t play the game just to get a paycheck, I play to help my team win,” he said. “This is my fifth year here, I’m tired of losing. When it gets to a point like this, you just want to win. I have trust in my coaching staff and the organization, so they can put me in games to help do things like that.”
McKelvin had eight return touchdowns in college at Troy, so he’s long had the ability.
“I get the ball in my hands, things can happen, especially when the other guys do a great job,” he said. “It’s no different than when I was in college. Everything’s starting to feel good.”
McKelvin also has gotten better at protecting the ball. After fumbling five times over the 2009 and ‘10 seasons, including an especially damaging one in the ‘09 season opener that led the Bills to losing a late lead at New England, McKelvin has fumbled just once in the last two seasons.
He’s made five fair catches this season, and hasn’t pushed it by bringing deep kick returns out of the end zone - despite how much he’d like to.
“I’m just doing what they tell me to do. Every time I get the ball in my hands, I still want to go,” he said. “You see teams bringing it out 8 yards deep, 7 yards deep. All us returners, C.J. [Spiller], Brad [Smith], we always talk about that … 8 yards deep, why can’t we bring it out?,” a laughing McKelvin said. “But Chan doesn’t want to put us in bad situations.
“If we can minimize those mistakes, it can help the defense and offense out.”