DETROIT — At a time when his team looked lifeless, he returned its energy.
At a time when the offense looked clueless, he returned its control.
At a time when embarrassment hung in the air, he returned sanity to the afternoon.
Given all that, is four games enough time to pronounce Clifton Smith as the finest return man the Bucs have ever employed?
Based on early returns, this is what Smith does: He returns things. Punts, passion and possibilities. Kickoffs, order and hope. He catches a kick, he steps around trouble, and he runs toward possibilities. Give him a lane and he will return a team to life.
And as of today, by golly, Smith just might be your favorite new Buccaneer.
Once again the kid from nowhere has stopped the Bucs from heading in that direction. This time Smith had two electric plays, a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 49-yard kickoff return. Together, those plays helped the Bucs return from their first-quarter ugliness and dispatch the winless Lions 38-20.
How long have the Bucs searched for such an amazing toy? How many returners have they sifted through until they found one this quick and this fearless and this dangerous?
The word "forever" comes to mind, doesn't it?
Four games and already the kid they call "Peanut" is a reason to stop going to the bathroom during punts and kickoffs. Four games and he has returned the Bucs' second kickoff and 10th punt for touchdowns. Four games and in two of them he has sparked his team to comeback victories over the Chiefs and Lions.
"The return game was almost laughed at here for years," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "We weren't able to take a kick back, and this guy comes out of nowhere and has taken a kickoff and a punt back."
With Smith the impact has not been just the plays he has made. It also has been his timing.
For instance, the darkest of moment for the Bucs on Sunday came with 11 seconds to go in the first quarter. Once again they were on the road, and once again they were far behind, and once again they looked worse than one of the dregs of the NFL. It was 17-0, Detroit-of-all-teams, and the Bucs looked like they were in trouble.
And Smith started the return trip. His 49-yard kickoff return after Detroit's third score gave the Bucs an initial spark, and seven plays later Tampa Bay was on the scoreboard. Then, in the third quarter, Smith took a punt and went 70 yards to score.
Like always, Smith started both plays with the simple task of reading his shoes. Really. Written on them, just above his toes, is a simple message: 1 chance.
"I only have one chance to make something of myself," Smith, 23, said. "I look at it every time I go out there. You could do something big, or you could be home tomorrow."
Perhaps that explains why Smith wasn't overly excited Sunday afternoon. He also had a fumble on a kickoff return (the Bucs recovered). And once again, a wound was reopened.
For Smith, ball security has his been his only flaw. He has fumbled in each of his four games this season, and for a man who makes his living returning kicks, that is the cardinal sin.
All last week, whenever he was at One Buc Place, Smith carried a ball, and all week his teammates tried to rip it from his hands. The rule was simple: Take the ball away from him and Smith was going to buy you a steak dinner. Only once did it happen — linebacker Adam Hayward managed it — but Smith got the ball back. No steak for Hayward.
On Saturday night, teammate Ronde Barber put Smith on the telephone with his brother Tiki, who had fumbling problems early in his career with the Giants. Smith came away with this message: "It is better to lose your arm than to lose the football."
For that reason, Smith wasn't prepared to call Sunday a success. The disappointment of fumbling again, he said, was bigger than the excitement of his returns.
"Fumbling the ball is killing me slowly," he said.
The rest of us, of course, would be dancing across the locker room. After all, Smith was an undrafted free agent, and if No. 2 draft choice Dexter Jackson hadn't fallen on his nose — literally, and often unassisted — then Smith might never have gotten his chance.
"I could easily be home on the couch or still on the practice squad," Smith said. "I'm proud of making it the hard way. I definitely think there is a message there."
He grinned, and his face lit up. You know, the way it does when he sees a punter in his way. "No way a punter is going to stop me," he says. "If I get to the punter, it's showtime."
Smith likes this stuff. There are NFL players who would retire before returning kicks, before staring at stadium lights while sprinters run 50 yards with the singular idea of ripping your head from your shoulders. But Smith returned 13 kicks for scores while in high school and five punts for touchdowns while at Fresno State. He's done this before.
Back then they called him Batman. That explains the tattoo on his left biceps. These days they call him Peanut. Why? Because he isn't as big as a cashew.
That, and because no one is laughing at the Bucs' return game anymore.
These days, every kick looks like Peanut's harvesting time.