Mason now a triple threat

Titan comes up big as a wide receiver, punt and kick returner

Pro Football

January 05, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When Tennessee Titans receiver Chris Sanders sees Derrick Mason in the huddle with his mouth wide-open, he gives him the following piece of advice.

"I tell him go get a cup of Gatorade," Sanders said. "Then he will go get that cup of Gatorade and be back to D-mase."

It seems Gatorade and taking a couple of offensive plays off rejuvenates Mason.

But who could blame Mason if he gets a little winded during games?

As ridiculous a notion that someone other than Pro Bowl running back Eddie George could be the team's most valuable player, Mason's versatility gives him a case this season.

Mason, 26, became the NFL's all-time, single-season leader in all-purpose yards with 2,690, surpassing the San Diego Chargers' Lionel James' 2,568 in 1985. He did it by leading the AFC in kickoff return average (27.0), returning punts and becoming the Titans' go-to wide receiver. Mason earned his first Pro Bowl appearance as kick returner and was named first-team All-Pro.

There was no question coming into this season that he was a dangerous return man but becoming a threat at receiver? Few - other than Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who said he knew Mason could do it all along - thought he could fill the void left by injuries to Kevin Dyson, Carl Pickens and Yancey Thigpen. This was a guy who entered the preseason as the fourth receiver after catching just eight passes last year.

"Derrick has made a lot of plays for us over the years in substitution situations on third down," Fisher said. "He's had the ability, that is why he is here. When called upon, he's made plays, and we expected him to make those plays.

"I'm not surprised whatsoever. He's got great quickness. He's smart, tough and loves to catch the ball over the middle. And he's got the ability to run after the catch."

All of those attributes will be on display in Sunday's divisional playoff game against the Ravens at Adelphia Coliseum. Mason led the team with 895 receiving yards, five touchdowns and finished second behind tight end Frank Wycheck's 70 catches with 63. Mason has played in all 16 games and started the past 12. His rise into the starting lineup came when Dyson went down with a season-ending injury after the second game.

Sanders took Dyson's place opposite Pickens, who suffered a hamstring injury before the fifth game. Mason then took Pickens' spot after his injury and has not relinquished it, though Pickens is now healthy.

"I'm really enjoying this year," Mason said. "I haven't really been able to enjoy it like I want to because we are trying to get to the point where we were last year and that is back to the Super Bowl. But I've just been having fun and am just going to go with it week by week.

"Whether it be at punt, kickoff, or receiver, I consider myself a threat. I consider myself a guy that can make a play, that can break a tackle and score a touchdown. As long as you have that type of attitude, you are going to make plays."

Mason's 13-yard average on punt returns was third in the AFC. He led the conference in attempts (51) and had a 69-yard return for a touchdown against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 30.

He showed flashes of brilliance last season, setting an AFC championship game record with 174 kickoff-return yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also had a 35-yard kickoff return in the Super Bowl loss to the St. Louis Rams.

But in this, his fourth season, Mason has become perhaps the best return man in the AFC. The matchup between him and the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis, who led the AFC in punt-return average (16.1 yards), should be as entertaining as any in Sunday's game.

It also will be entertaining to watch Mason face Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks.

"Derrick Mason has carried this offense and the receiving corps on his shoulders," Titans quarterback Steve McNair said. "He's carried the special teams. You can't compliment the guy enough. He's a special character. We knew that when we brought him here.

"It was just that he needed the opportunity to play a lot. Once he got in, he took advantage of it."

Mason may wear down for a play or two during the games but has shown little sign of fatigue throughout the season.

Mason has led the team in receiving in three of the past four games and had six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys - just the kind of performance to reassure Fisher that the heavy workload this season had not taken a toll on Mason's body.

"There was a point there where we had some unusually warm weather in late October, early November," Fisher said. "He was getting a lot of reps on the practice field. We had some receivers hurt, our numbers were down, so his reps went way up. There was a concern there. But he pushed right through it. And he is as strong now as he has been all year."

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