Even though he hasn’t lined up as a wide receiver, Banks has shown plenty of value as a return specialist. He hopes his big return was enough to convince coaches he belongs on the 53-man roster.
“That’s exactly what I needed,” he said.
Missing the previous two games, Banks had to sit idle while other receivers impressed coaches. But all eyes were on him when the Bucs lined up to punt in the second quarter Thursday night.
Banks caught the ball at the Washington 5-yard line and immediately burst through a wide lane. The fingertips of one Bucs defender brushed across a sprinting Banks, but that was the closest anyone came to him.
But as he crossed the Tampa Bay 5-yard line, Banks began swinging his outstretched arms and prepared to flip the ball, which came out earlier than Banks intended — just as he crossed the goal line. Officials signaled touchdown but almost immediately began to review the play.
On the sideline, Banks knew his premature celebration put the score in jeopardy. When officials ruled the touchdown would stand, he broke into a celebration even bigger than the one in the end zone.
“I'm glad it went my way. . . . You don't want to do all that work for nothing,” Banks said. “I want to put points on the board.”
In recent weeks, Terrence Austin has shown that he’s a more-than-capable returner and Banks figured he needed a big night. Coaches will now monitor his surgically repaired left knee to see if Thursday’s heavy workload — four kick returns and three punt returns — result in any swelling.
Following the game, Banks said his knee “feels great,” but also noted, “I'm still not as fast as I want to be.”
Banks appeared in only two preseason games, but made the most of both. In the preseason opener against Pittsburgh, he had a 58-yard kickoff return that he nearly broke for a touchdown. Between the two games, however, he missed several practices, flew to Alabama for a consultation with orthopedist James Andrews and underwent a series of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatments.
Banks tore his meniscus cartilage in last season’s Oct. 31 game at Detroit and had the knee operated on last November. He lacked the same explosiveness following the procedure. Banks averaged 27.3 yards per kick return and 13.8 yards per punt return before the surgery and 23.9 yards per kick return and 9.4 yards per punt return after.
If coaches decide Banks is healthy, they’ll have a tough decision to make at the wide receiver position when they trim the roster to 53 players Saturday. Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Anthony Armstrong should make the team. Austin has been a standout performer this preseason, rookies Leonard Hankerson and Niles Paul should receive consideration, and veteran Donte Stallworth has impressed coaches. He caught the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes against the Bucs.
Banks averaged 23 yards per kick return Thursday, with a long of 26, and averaged 34.3 yards on three punt returns. The Bucs punted away from Banks on three occasions, drawing boos from a FedEx Field crowd hungry for highlights.
“I feel the same way I always feel: I can lose my job any given day,” Banks said. “Every day I approach it like I can lose it. So I'm prepared for whatever.”