It was The Hyphen's exclamation point.
LaRod Stephens-Howling sent a jolt through the University of Phoenix Stadium with his 102-yard return for a touchdown on the first regular-season kickoff in 2010. It was the longest return for the franchise since Roy Green took one back 106 yards in Dallas back in 1979, long before Stephens-Howling and most of his teammates were even born.
It was also a makeup of sorts, after a penalty – that had nothing to do with the play – on Kenny Iwebema had cost Stephens-Howling and the Cards a kick return for a touchdown the week before in Atlanta.
As in most cases, the return against the Raiders wasn't just about Stephens-Howling. It was about players making key blocks, a little scheming on the part of special teams coach Kevin Spencer, and a little luck:
BEFORE THE KICK
Spencer had watched film of the Raiders' special teams play against the Rams the week before, looking for soft spots in Oakland's coverage. He made a "subtle change" in what the Cards were doing based on some of the effective things the Rams had run, but basically, the initial idea was for Stephens-Howling to come up the middle and move right, looking for a hole.
"We just want to give LaRod a chance," Spencer said. "He wants to stretch that thing and pop a seam."
Since Stephens-Howling already had one touchdown on a return – albeit called back – and another last season, his presence alone energizes his blockers. Spencer said the same used to be true in Pittsburgh with Antwaan Randle-El. Cardinals special teams captain Jason Wright – Stephens-Howling's "blocking fullback" on kickoff returns – said it puts more responsibility on the blockers.
After all, if you don't have a player who can break one, what's the big deal if you miss a block?
"I blocked for Josh Cribbs in Cleveland and he is the best in the NFL," Wright said. "What makes him and LaRod similar is they hit the hole. A lot of kickoff returners are what I call your typical wide receiver types, and they don't want to run up in there. If you don't hit that seam, it's gone. Josh and LaRod, they are fearless."
HITTING THE SEAM
Sebastian Janikowski booted the ball to Stephens-Howling two yards deep in the end zone, and The Hyphen brought it out. And that's when the collisions started – most of them.
Spencer noted that the one guy who missed his block was linebacker Reggie Walker. Missed blocks are not uncommon, especially for up-front guys. As Wright noted, those players are trying to get in front of opponents coming full speed, and the blockers don't know where the return man is or where the ball went. But Walker's miss changed the complexion of the return, as Stephens-Howling realized there would be a better opening to the backside of the play veering left.
First, rookie linebacker Daryl Washington steered Raiders linebacker Quentin Groves out of the play. Then it was Wright's turn.
Wright had an assignment. But his assignment always comes with a caveat, because he also must look for the "MDM" – the Most Dangerous Man. Running backs coach Tommie Robinson always lets everyone know that if an opponent can tackle you as a blocker, he probably can tackle the ballcarrier. Wright must clean that up. In this case, it was Raiders defensive back Stevie Brown.
"You find your courage and blast them," Wright said. "You can't half step it because if you half step it, they are going to knock you over."
Stephens-Howling does some work on his own, escaping possible tackles from safety Mike Mitchell and running back Michael Bennett as he nears the back of the hole that's been created.
Cardinals rookie tight end Jim Dray is locked up with Raiders tight end Brandon Myers near the hole, and because the play has changed from right to left, suddenly Dray is on the wrong side of his man.
"When you are in that position, and guys are falling off blocks and it might look like you are holding, it is tempting to let go," Dray said. "But on a kickoff return, the biggest thing is cover your guy up and as he starts to release, run your feet. The guy moved and I ran my feet a little bit and he fell over, so it worked for the best."
Suddenly, Stephens-Howling was in the open around his own 25-yard line.
"You know the concept and you know where it is supposed to hit," Stephens-Howling said. "That's really what you are reading, reading the blocks and they made a little seam there. I got through it and after that, I'm just thinking, 'I can't get caught now.' "
Stephens-Howling angled to the left sideline. Janikowski moved in that direction, but he had little chance to do anything, and Stephens-Howling flew past Janikowski's outstretched fingertips about the Arizona 40.
At that point, Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson saw an opportunity. Johnson's play hadn't started well – he went to make a block, opened up, and his man cut back beneath him. Spencer said had the play ended for Johnson there, he would have had a minus grade. Johnson knew it.
"LaRod made the cut and thank God my guy didn't come in to make the play," Johnson said. "When he did squirt through, I just started sprinting to get back ahead. I noticed the kicker was there but I knew he'd beat the kicker racing to the sideline so I ran past (LaRod) to make a block and let everyone forget I miss that block earlier."
Stephens-Howling sped down the field, where, ironically, only Brown had a chance to still angle him off. After Wright hit him, Brown bounced backward in the chaos back at the Arizona 22, but never left his feet, and was sprinting in chase ever since.
But Johnson was sprinting too. As Stephens-Howling approached the Raiders' 25, Brown and Johnson began handfighting, with Brown trying to get inside and Johnson trying to maintain the block without a penalty.
Their final collision came just inside the 10, with both falling to the ground as Brown made a final desperate attempt at a stop. Johnson just didn't want to leave any "grey areas" for an official to throw a flag. Without Johnson, Stephens-Howling probably doesn't get into the end zone.
"I just saw a white jersey, and then I saw Rashad coming," Stephens-Howling said. "I was thinking, 'Thank you for being here right now.' The other day when we were watching film, I told him, 'Thanks for being there and finishing.' "
As Stephen-Howling crossed the goal line, he posed for the end zone fans and let out a primal scream. He held the ball too, until big offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges jumped on him from behind, knocking Stephens-Howling down and jarring the ball loose.
"I definitely wasn't prepared for that one," Stephens-Howling said. "I told (Jeremy), 'You've got to lay off.' But it's good. It was the excitement."
Safety Adrian Wilson came off the sideline to collect the ball for The Hyphen and congratulate his teammate. Wright eventually got there too.
"It was a good feeling," Wright said. "Honestly though, what I thought was 'I have to get back on kickoff coverage, so I don't want to expend too much energy, especially the first play of the game.' I jogged down, mocked a couple of Raiders fans, gave LaRod some dap, and got back."
"It was awesome," said Dray, who trailed the play, his arm raised in celebration as The Hyphen headed for the goal line. "You know all 11 guys did their job and because of that you had the ultimate result."
Before every kickoff return, the players gather in a huddle and yell, "Let's take it to the house."
"That's the expectation," Dray said. "I think everyone believes it – especially now."