The players with the most specialized roles in the Pro Bowl were among the AFC’s busiest yesterday.
With the AFC giving up turnovers and touchdowns in bunches in a 55-41 loss at Aloha Stadium, Jacksonville’s Montell Owens and Tennessee kick returner Marc Mariani got quite the workout in their Pro Bowl debuts.
Owens had a hand in three second-half touchdowns after the AFC had fallen behind 42-0 in the second quarter. And all those kickoffs made Mariani the game’s most productive player in terms of yardage.
Both fought long odds to get into the league, and for Owens, simply getting into the Pro Bowl for his special teams play during the season was a distinction to savor.
A running back by trade, Owens made the most of his selection by scoring on a fumble return on a kickoff early in the fourth quarter and catching a 7-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel. He later tossed a lateral to Cleveland center Alex Mack, who went the distance for the game’s final touchdown.
"It feels good to spread your wings a little bit," Owens said of his touchdown reception. "That is part of my role, but I play special teams with all my heart."
Owens, who signed with Jacksonville in 2006 as an undrafted rookie out of Maine, was a Pro Bowl alternate for last year’s game in Miami and broke through this season for his first berth in the all-star game.
The fact that his efforts in the kicking game often aren’t all that recognizable to the average fan make his selection by coaches and peers all the more meaningful.
"This means a lot because as a special teamer, there’s only one," Owens said. "Only one guy from the AFC, one guy from the NFC. So it’s extremely difficult to make it as a special teamer."
Owens stepped into the spotlight in 2008 when he scored on a fumble return on a kickoff against Cincinnati.
He found himself with a similar opportunity yesterday when the NFC’s Devin Hester and DeAngelo Hall botched an exchange on an attempted reverse on a kickoff. Owens scooped up the loose ball at the 8 and took it in for the AFC’s second touchdown in a span of 5 seconds early in the third quarter.
"I kind of felt right at home," Owens said. "I’d seen that one before.
"Usually the ball is bouncing around and you try to get on it. But it just happened to stop right there. Right place at the right time."
Mariani, a rookie out of Montana, led the all-stars in total yardage by returning nine kickoffs for 326 yards, an average of 36.2 yards with a long of 52.
He hadn’t handled the ball except on special teams during the season, but ran the ball twice on offense yesterday for a total of 11 yards.
"I got my money’s worth. It was a blast," Mariani said. "I was getting ready to play some defense, too.
"It’s kind of the way I’m wired. Whatever way I can get on the field and help my team try to get a win, I’m down. It was a good experience. I’ve got a lot of motivation to come back because I had a lot of fun this week."