Niners turning to Vinny for help in return game?
January 02, 2003
By Craig Massei

Remember Vinny Sutherland? You might be seeing him returning kicks for the 49ers this week. And it won't be a flashback. Sutherland, released by the Niners this summer after being their primary kickoff and punt returner in 2001, had a tryout with the team on Wednesday. And coach Steve Mariucci said, "He looks to be in good shape. We're thinking about (signing him)."

The Niners are thin at kick returner entering Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants.

The team lost its top returner Jimmy Williams - the NFC leader in punt returns - for the season to a knee injury three weeks ago. It lost kickoff returner Jamal Robertson for the season with a torn hamstring a week later.

Backup receiver Cedrick Wilson became the top guy on both kickoffs and punts after that, but he turned his ankle catching a pass in Monday's loss to the St. Louis Rams. Wilson's replacement on punts - starting cornerback Jason Webster - already was out of the game after suffering an ankle injury himself.

"At one point in our game against the Rams we had no punt returners. None," Mariucci said Wednesday. "We don't know what Jason's status is right now. Ced practiced today, but he's limping around a little bit. We need to consider having another return man on the roster active for this game."

So the Niners brought in Sutherland, who returned 50 kickoffs for a 1,140 yards for the team last year as a rookie. Sutherland's 22.8 average placed him 11th in the NFC last year, but he averaged just 7.0 yards on punt returns, putting the Niners last in the NFL in that category.

But Sutherland displayed sure hands and he knows the system. That might be enough for the Niners at this point. Sutherland spent one game with the Chicago Bears before being released this season, and he has remained in football shape.

Sutherland also is healthy. Webster is listed as questionable, and the Niners definitely would like to have another alternative to Wilson, who has averaged just 19.5 yards on kickoff returns and 7.4 yards on punt returns since taking over those roles. Backup fullback Paul Smith is the only other kick returner on the roster, and he has averaged just 15.3 yards on seven kickoff returns.

"(Sutherland) caught punts, ran around a little bit," Mariucci said. "He said he's been running and training and that sort of thing. We'll decide as we go. Nothing's been decided today."

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