If the disdain that many observers have uttered over the Winnipeg return game lately sounds familiar, it is because similar opinions were being expressed about it five games into last season.
Many wonder why kick returner Albert Johnson III gains about the same number of yards on punt returns as the Blue Bombers did in the days before blocking was allowed. And they are still lamenting the fact that the 2000 CFL Rookie of the Year has yet to break a big one on any runback this year.
Although Johnson has heard the criticism, it is not keeping him up nights.
"I never worry about that," he said yesterday. "The media does. I don't think the coaches do. I don't think my teammates do. We've just got to be smart with the football, which I always am, and eliminate the mental mistakes. That's what we did (against Montreal) last week.
"The big returns are going to come. I hear things out in the community that they're waiting on me to break one or why haven't I broken one? But even in my rookie year, I was never a big scorer. I did get the yards for the offence and my focus hasn't changed. That's my job -- to get positive yards for the offence."
Turns out that Johnson is doing just what the coaches are demanding.
"A.J., in the kicking game, is doing exactly what I'm looking for in the offence and the defence, and that's consistency," said Bomber head coach Doug Berry.
"Move the ball forward five to 10 yards and I'm happy. First play of offence, I'll take that every time -- five to 10 yards -- and we're getting that from him on the punt returns. And on kickoff returns, get that ball up past the 30 yard-line."
FOURTH IN CFL
Johnson, 29, has returned 15 punts for 131 yards and 11 kickoffs for 214, which are both fourth in the CFL. His 94 yards on four missed field goal returns is third and his 439 combined yards is fifth overall.
"He's in the middle of the pack right now," Berry said. "The thing that's really good, even where we're at right now, is that I know we have been -- and I'm not kidding -- half an inch from having two touchdowns -- one on a kickoff return and one on a punt return. So, we're really close there. Once we break the big one, that will take his numbers and shoot them way up."
They certainly did last season. After a slow start, Johnson finished first in punt returns with 85 for 810 yards. He was fourth in kickoff returns with 1,000 yards on 50 runbacks and second overall in combined yardage to teammate Charles Roberts with 1,992.
"We're on the right track," said the 5-foot-9, 199-pound CFL All-Star last season. "It takes a little bit of time because you don't have the same 12 guys that you do have on offence and defence every week. And I trust those guys. They're improving, they're working hard every week and I try to give them hints and tips when we watch film about what their guys are going to do to them.
"You can't kill yourself with stats and things like that. I just try to keep myself healthy enough to play and to be in a position to be in the playoffs, and I want to set myself up as an all-star."
Johnson, however, did suffer a dislocated finger during Monday's practice but it will not keep him out of this Friday's match against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"I'm good," said Johnson, who wore a glove to protect that finger at yesterday's session.