CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers have more faith in their return game than they've had in years.
Funny what having an actual return man will do for you.
Newcomer Mark Jones, a late injury add to the roster just before the start of the regular season, has quickly become a staple of the Panthers' special teams, and lent legitimacy to what has been a weigh-station in recent years.
The fifth-year special teamer is fitting in nicely, even to the point of being ragged on by wide receiver Steve Smith. As a handful of reporters approached Jones as he was changing after practice, Smith laughed and yelled: "You get a game ball and all of a sudden you're doing interviews with no shirt on?"
Jones just smiled and proceeded, much in the same way he returns kicks.
"It feels really good, especially coming in and helping this team win," he said. "That was my main thing coming in here just to help get this team better. I just want to keep doing that."
What he's done is something few have been more than passable at since John Fox came onboard in 2002.
Since taking over kickoff returns when rookie running back Jonathan Stewart was whacked in Tampa Bay, Jones has averaged 27.8 yards per return, including his 55-yarder last week in Oakland. He's returned punts all season, averaging 12.3 per return with a 59-yarder last week as well.
That puts him on the verge of putting his name in the team record books in both aspects.
The best punt-return season was 1996, when Winslow Oliver had 598 yards on 52 attempts for a 10.7 average. The kickoff return average record was set by Michael Bates in 1996 (30.2), but Jones is currently ahead of Bates's second best season of 1997, when he averaged 27.3.
All he hasn't done is score a touchdown this year -- or ever -- but he's quickly convincing his teammates that might not be far off.
"He's always enthused, always believes when we go out on the field that this one is it -- you should always have that attitude about returns," special teamer Donte Curry said. "Definitely he gives us a lot of confidence. Things don't always work out the way you draw them up as far as blocks, making sure everybody has the right block, has the right technique, plays the right leverage.
"He does a great job of making something out of nothing. It's hard sometimes for all 10 guys up front to get their blocks, and everybody to be on point. I will say he can make people miss. Some guy misses his block, let that guy go, make the first one miss and makes something happen."
Jones was an established returner for three years in Tampa before a knee injury ended his run there. He went to camp with San Diego, proved himself well (but not enough to beat out Darren Sproles), and fell into the Panthers laps at final cuts.
They're grateful for it, too.
If he had enough attempts to qualify for the league stats, he'd be third in the league in kickoff return average. He's sixth in the league in punt return average.
The Panthers haven't had that kind of threat in either side of the return game since Rod Smart made the most of kickoffs in 2003, with a 100-yard touchdown return pumping his yearly average to 23.1, nearly 5 yards short of what Jones has done so far. That he's on pace to shatter Oliver's franchise punt record is impressive, but among regulars, only Smith has even recorded double-figure averages on punts since Fox took over.
The parade of guys such as Jamall Broussard, Jamal Robertson, Eugene Baker, Dee Brown, Isaac Byrd and even Smart -- who was on the verge of returning to obscurity when he flashed briefly here -- were never able to make anything of the job. That left the Panthers flailing, trying Smith when he didn't want to, along with running back DeAngelo Williams and cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall though they had bigger jobs. They even drafted Ryne Robinson last year, and the promise he showed was dashed by this summer's knee injury.
"He's done a fantastic job for us," Fox said. "He's a guy who was a late pickup for us due to injury. He's a guy that works hard. He's the right kind of guy as far as his work ethic and the kind of guy who is learning his craft. I think he's shown steady improvement all season."
Last week was his best game, with 182 combined return yards, a number that was hard-won, and clearly the best thing that happened to the Panthers all day when they had their hands on the ball.
"I knew coming into the game I was going to get some returns," Jones said. "I knew (Raiders punter Shane) Lechler had a big foot, strong leg and he was going to outkick his coverage. I knew with that I could get some good returns and our defense did a great job of giving me the opportunity to get those returns.
"The guys up front did a great job, I was fortunate enough to see the holes and I hit it."
And when he hit it, he hit it full speed. Jones isn't much of a dancer back there. He's got enough wiggle to make one guy miss, but he learned long ago there's little time to make a move, so you might as well make the first one count for yardage.
"That's one thing coaches always tell you, catch the ball and head upfield," he said. "Don't try to give ground and lose yardage trying to get to the outside, if it's there you take it but for the most part I kind of pride myself on just catching it and getting upfield and get what I can.
"Yes, you're fast, but they're fast too. It's better to get upfield and get yards and maybe break one. So keep doing that and good things are going to happen."
Though he's only here on a minimum-wage, make-good one-year deal, he's quickly become the closest thing to a return institution they've had since Bates left. What that means for his future, he's not sure. But for right now, he's on a bit of a roll, and isn't going to start thinking about his role in years to come.
"Coming into this I was just returning punts," Jones said. "And unfortunately Jon got hurt and allowed me to come in and I was just here to help out, that's how I came in.
"I was told once you get your hand on the steering wheel, don't let go. That's my mentality right now."