When LaMichael James was finally brought to the ground after a 41 yard kick off return, the 49ers were in business. With the score tied at 20-20 and 25 seconds remaining, San Francisco started the game’s final drive at their own 36 yard line and were just a couple of passes away from a field goal opportunity. Two completions and a field goal later, the Niners came away with 23-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals after nearly losing a game in which they lead 17-0 at one point.
If this scenario sounds kind of familiar, it’s because it should. James displayed similar big play ability in the return game back in Week 15 of 2012 when the 49ers had let a 31-3 lead disappear to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. After the Pats tied score at 31, James took the ensuing kickoff back 62 yards to the New England 38. The 49ers scored on the next play and held on to win the game 41-34.
James has been a breath of fresh air since being re-inserted as the team’s primary return man this season. He is averaging 26.8 yards per kick return and 10.9 yards per punt return. That is a significant improvement from the player he replaced, Kyle Williams. Williams had only been averaging 19.1 yards for every kick return and 5.1 on punts. Williams also had 20 fair catches and only returned a punt on 12 of 32 actual opportunities. In contrast, James has taken back kicks on 23 of 35 chances (12 fair catches) and, as noted above, is more than doubling Williams in average yards per punt return.