Another game, another Travis Benjamin slip up. For the fourth consecutive week, San Diego’s coveted offseason acquisition coughed up the ball, with last Thursday’s gaffe serving as the third fumble of which he lost. His hesitation in punt return duty ended up with a loose ball and Broncos recovery, but unlike the previous weeks, didn’t end up contributing to a Chargers loss.
The lost fumble against Denver marked the second of its kind that Benjamin’s lost this year to go with two other cough-ups. If he were on this Chargers team as a punt returner and a punt returner only, he’d find himself back on the free agent market only a few months after exiting it. But Benjamin’s elite speed and solid hands serve him well as the default go-to receiver for Philip Rivers in Keenan Allen’s absence, with a pair of 100-yard receiving days and two scores to his name in a Chargers uniform so far.
So Benjamin doesn’t have to worry about getting a pink slip, but it appears as if he’s going to have to wait a while before San Diego’s coaching staff is comfortable giving him the keys to punt return duty again.
Clinging on to an 11-point lead that never felt safe, the Chargers were much more concerned with protecting the ball than flipping field position, and inserted Dexter McCluster in place of Benjamin for the rest of the game at punt returner. McCluster did what he was instructed to — not screw up — but he’s no long-term answer for the Chargers as a special teams ace.
In normal circumstances, McCluster wouldn’t be the Chargers’ only option besides Benjamin to throw back there. In fact, in normal circumstances, he wouldn’t even be in San Diego. But after Branden Oliver and Danny Woodhead went down, in came the former Titan and Chief as another body off the street taking the place of injured Chargers.
McCluster made an early name for himself in Kansas City with his special teams play, but over his career only averages 10.6 yards per punt return, not nearly enough to warrant putting him in over the more dangerous Benjamin.
San Diego would love to have Oliver’s dynamic return abilities to take advantage of in the wake of Benjamin’s fumble issues. They’d also love to be able to put the ever-reliable Woodhead back there. He may not break off any big returns, but surely he wouldn’t let the ball carom off his outstretched arms into the opponent’ grasp. Even Allen would be a candidate to take the job, despite his status as the team’s top wideout making his value too high to risk at returner.
Right now as Allen heals from a torn ACL, Benjamin is San Diego’s top wideout. But the Chargers can’t afford to let their fear of his fumbling problems or possible injury risk prevent them from putting him out there in the future for punt returns. McCluster is an okay option as a third-down back to provide a chip block and work his way out of the backfield to become a check-down receiver, but he’s not a threat to take any given punt return back to the house like Benjamin is.
For a team that — despite prolific offense — has only won when the defense steps up, the Chargers can’t expect to compete with healthier and deeper teams if they don’t get those occasional sparks from the special teams unit. While Benjamin needs to work on his ball protection moving forward, San Diego’s lack of depth behind him and his pure speed makes him too talented to send to the bench six games into his Chargers career.