Bills Return Specialist Could Be on Hot Seat After McDermott Criticism

Isaiah McKenzie

Getty Isaiah McKenzie reacts to a holding penalty after he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans.

Isaiah McKenzie has given the Buffalo Bills a boost in the return game, but his mistake-prone play has also earned the criticism of his coach and could have his job at risk.

McKenzie took over the role as the team’s kick and punt returner this season after the departure of All Pro Andre Roberts, and has excelled at turning the field for the Bills. He is one of the league’s top specialists, averaging 25.5 yards per kick return and 8.1 yards per punt return. But McKenzie has also had issues with ball security, which earned the attention of Bills coach Sean McDermott this week.

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McKenzie’s Miscue Against Dolphins

The Buffalo’s 26-11 win over the Miami Dolphins on October 31, McKenzie tried to field a punt at the 8-yard line but muffed it, with the ball squirting into the endzone and eventually back into the hands of Bills receiver Jake Kumerow for a touchback. Though the Bills avoided what could have been a very costly turnover — or even a Miami touchdown — in what was a close game, they were able to keep possession. But after the game, McDermott shared his concern about the play.

“Putting the ball on the ground is an issue,” he said, via WROC-TV’s Thad Brown on Twitter. “And he knows that.”

McKenzie’s decision to field the punt earned some criticism and is now the second returning miscue from him this season. Against Washington Football Team, he failed to get into position to field a short, pop-fly kickoff that then bounced on the turf and was recovered by Washington.

Though McDermott has not been known to air particularly harsh criticism of his players, he has not been shy about sharing his disdain for fumbles. Ahead of the team’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, McDermott made it know that he wasn’t happy with how often the team put the ball on the turf. Many believed the comments were directed at running back Devin Singletary, who had fumbled four times through the team’s first four games.

“We’re living dangerously,” McDermott said, via “… You want to see a game turn fast? Put the ball on the ground and you’ll see how fast it can turn. Just look at the stats in terms of what decides wins and losses. That [turnover ratio] is pretty consistent, year-to-year, week-to-week, of driving wins and losses.”

McKenzie’s Job Could Be at Risk

The Bills could soon be facing a decision whether to keep McKenzie in his role of return specialist. During the preseason he split returning duties with speedy rookie Marquez Stevenson, who returned a punt for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears. The seventh-round pick was hurt at the end of the team’s preseason and has been on injured reserve ever since, but is eligible to return at any point.

Some had speculated that Buffalo could look for help in the return game at the trade deadline. Matt Warren of SB Nation’s Buffalo Rumbings wrote that Houston Texans cornerback Desmond King could be a strong addition and potentially a fill-in for McKenzie.

“King could also potentially replace Isaiah McKenzie as punt returner, but as a cornerback would also be an upgrade either as the second or third outside CB,” he wrote. “At $1.2 million, he would certainly be cheaper and they don’t need to start him right away. Plus, he was just suspended for missing a team function, so his value won’t be lower.”

McKenzie’s job appears safe for now. The Bills made no deals at the trade deadline, and Stevenson remains on IR.

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