Before I go into my reasons why kick and punt returner Brandon James is likely to get a pink slip next week, let me just say that since the start of camp I have been a very vocal, very out-spoken Brandon James cheerleader. He had a very good training camp, and it seemed clear that the Colts planned to use him in a variety of ways: Returning kicks, running screens, reverses, playing slot receiver, etc.
During the first two preseason games, James really seemed to showcase his ability in the open field. By far, he's gotten the most work of any kick or punt returner playing in preseason. His 10 kick-off returns lead NFL players in preseason, and his 6 punt returns are 8th. His kick return average (24.3) is already higher than what Chad Simpson was giving the Colts last year (23.6). In addition, James' nine returns for 20 or more yards leads all players in preseason.
Again, it's preseason and the numbers are to be taken with a grain of salt, but for the most part James had been a breath of fresh air for the special teams unit.
However, if you had asked me "What could James ill-afford to do between the third preseason game and the final cuts?" My answer would have been an easy one: He absolutely cannot muff a punt or a kick. Even worse, if that muffed punt or kick gives the opponent a touchdown, he's a definite goner.
Unfortunately for Brandon James, that is exactly what he did in the team's third preseason game.
With the Colts up 17-7 and, seemingly, in full control of the football game, the Colts defense stopped Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense on 3rd and 9 from the Green Bay 47 yard line. The Packers punted, but (as we all saw) Brandon James misjudged the punt and tried to field it when he should have just let it go into the endzone. He muffed the catch, which resulted in a fumble recovered by Green Bay in the endzone for a touchdown.
This play changed the entire make-up of the football game going forward. From that moment on, the Packers scored 17 unanswered points and eventually put 59 up on the board.
Because this is a preseason game, we shrug it off and move on. If this had been a regular season game, or (god forbidden) a playoff game, Brandon James would need to go in witness protection. Muffed punts and mental mistakes are absolutely unforgivable in the eyes of Colts coaches and Colts fans, and James' key muff was indeed a mental mistake.
When asked by the press after the game as to whether James' muff was a physical mistake or a mental one, Caldwell made it clear the screw-up was indeed mental. When asked to elaborate on the topic, Caldwell replied:
We have a couple of guys that can certainly move that ball forward a bit. But there’s a progression to that. I kind of compare it to my golf game. The first thing with a golf ball I want to do is make contact, that’s number one. The second thing is to get it airborne, and the third thing is to hit it straight. I’m still on number two. The same thing happens in terms of the return game. The first thing you have to do is catch it. The second thing, you have to secure it. The third thing, you get us some yardage. One and two have to be a given, because even if you don’t get a yard, as long as you catch the ball and possess it and give our offense a chance to move that thing, we’re going to be all right. It may not be exactly what we wanted, but we’re going to be okay. We certainly don’t want to turn it over, and we have to look at whether an individual is dependable or reliable.
Right now, how can anyone argue that Brandon James is 'dependable' as a punt or kick returner? We ragged and berated the slow-footed Chad Simpson, but I never recall a muffed punt or kick during his tenure with the Colts. Certainly, he never royally f*cked up the way James did Thursday against the Pack.
With Devin Moore having shown more ability and sure-handedness than James as a returner, and with Ray Fisher offering a bit more versatility as a returner, gunner, and defensive back, there is simply no reason to keep Brandon James. Also, factor in that James has not impressed as a wideout, dropping passes in practice and looking very 'meh' in preseason games running routes. Meanwhile, Blair White has indeed impressed as a wideout, catching pretty much everything thrown at him and offering more size (6'2) than the puny James (5'7).
So, yeah, Brandon James is a goner. The Colts aren't going to keep him. Write it down. It's going to happen. He will get cut. If, by some miracle, the Colts keep him, it will be because Jim Caldwell has a different set of of standards than his predecessor (Tony Dungy ) did. You all might recall that back in 2008 during the preseason, one-time Colts returner Courtney Roby (now with the Saints) fumbled a kick return in the team's third preseason game.
He was cut not long after. Brandon James should expect the same.