Despite already tying the league single-season record for touchdowns via punt returns, Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson has yet to register his first kickoff runback in the NFL. But the Cardinals' first-rounder has a pretty good idea that running back a punt and a kickoff aren't quite the same thing.
"I ran back kickoffs last year (at LSU)," said Peterson, who is averaging 17.5 yards per punt return and has scored four times, "and I'm pretty sure they're not the same. It's kind of the same (skill-set), but not quite."
Not quite, indeed, players who perform both tasks agree, and the numbers through Thursday night's Pittsburgh-Cleveland game help bear that out.
Entering this weekend's schedule, there have been only eight kickoffs returned for touchdowns, while 18 punts have been run back for scores. There are 11 players in the NFL who have logged both 20 or more kickoff and punt returns this year, and the consensus seems to be that the rules change that moved the kickoff point back to the 35-yard line has swung the pendulum toward punt returns as the more exciting play in 2011.
Clearly, it is a play in which the scattered field aspect of the return has provided more scoring opportunity than on kickoff returns. It's probably fair to say that kickoff return specialists in 2011 certainly feel more limited, and possibly even more pressure, than in the past.
PR/KR Devin Hester
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
The 18 punt returns for touchdowns are the most ever in a season through 13 weeks of play, according to the NFL, and equals or surpasses the number for a full season for every year since 2002. The '02 season produced the most punt return touchdowns in history, 22, and the current pace projects to a record 24. Returners are averaging a very healthy 10.08 yards per punt return, the best average in more than a decade.
"It's still hard to return a punt for a touchdown; a lot of things have to go your way," acknowledged Brandon Tate of Cincinnati, who returns both punts and kickoffs. "But the field has always been more open (on punts), so there are opportunities there, especially if you can make the first (defender) miss. And the kickoffs have become a lot harder because of the new rule."
The rules change has, the numbers indicate, provided fewer return opportunities for the big play. In 2006, only nine kickoffs were returned for scores, but that year is seen as a bit of an aberration. The average for the 10-year stretch 2001-2010 was just more than 15 touchdowns per season on kickoff runbacks.
Actually, kickoff return averages have increased in 2011, to 24.02 yards, after settling in at slightly more than 22 yards over the previous decade. But fewer kickoffs have been run back -- the touchback rate through Thursday night was just under 45 percent -- and returners eager to make a play often have to gamble on a kick that is five or seven yards deep in the end zone.
The result: "You can have a 24- or 25-yard return," Antonio Brown of Pittsburgh, who has returned both punts and kickoffs for the Steelers, but fell just short of the 20/20 club, told The Sports Xchange, "and still come up short of the 20-yard line."
Brown had a kickoff return for a touchdown as a rookie in 2010, and last week had a 60-yard punt return for a score. There is "a little more creativity," he allowed, on punt returns now. "I still want to do both," Brown said, "because they allow for the big play. But the odds may have gone to the punt side now. There may be a little bit of an advantage there now."
Said Washington return specialist Brandon Banks: "It gets a little bit frustrating (on kickoffs) anymore. You see games now where the kickoff guys doesn't even get a chance to bring the ball out."
Only four times in the previous 10 seasons were there more punt returns than kickoff runbacks for scores, the last time in 2008. But never has the disparity between punt return and kickoff return scores been as high, more than 2-1. The kickoff return was historically a mixed bag: Returns were more scripted and plotted out, certainly more disciplined than punt returns, and lacking some of the ad-lib or improvisational nature of the latter. But coverages of kickoffs was more disciplined as well. Still, return men preferred returning kickoffs because of the more set nature of the endeavor, and, frankly because they seemed less dangerous.
There has always been a kind of kamikaze aura about returning punts. Survey kick returners in most recent seasons, and the preference, if they conceded one, was for returning kickoffs.
"If you're looking to score, to turn a game around, the punt (return) might be the better way to do it," noted Eric Weems of Atlanta, who returns both.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Long time coming:
There are currently four players in the league with a dozen or more sacks and three of them -- DeMarcus Ware (Dallas), Jared Allen (Minnesota), and Jason Babin (Philadelphia) -- have all reached that level at least once previously in their NFL careers.
DE Chris Long
The new guy: St. Louis defensive end Chris Long, who has played fairly well in his three prior seasons with the Rams, but who was never the big sack threat the team envisioned him being when it chose him with the second overall selection in the 2008 draft. The four-year veteran has sacks in nine of the dozen games the Rams have played -- a three-game stretch in October when he was shut out represent the only sack goose-eggs -- and the former Virginia standout and son of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for a franchise that many felt was on the verge of a breakthrough in 2011.
"Experience is a great teacher," said Long, whose sack total has increased each of his seasons in the league. "You learn a little more every year, add to your (repertoire), find out a little more of what works and what doesn't."
The tackles who have faced Long agree that he is using his hands better than in the past and playing with better natural leverage.
"And he seems to have that 'feel' for the sack, that instinct, that good rush guys have now," said San Francisco right tackle Anthony Davis, whose team surrendered a pair of sacks to Long last week. "A lot of guys, it seems to be part of their nature, but he's developed it."
Long, whose previous career best was 8 1/2 sacks in 2010, plays on the strong side and had been viewed as a solid defender versus the run, but only an average sack threat, until this season. St. Louis coaches, who are under heat and might not be back next season if new owner Stan Kroenke opts to clean house, nonetheless agree that Long, still only 26, is a young player who is one of the franchise's building blocks.
The "other" Smith
There has been plenty of attention in San Francisco paid to the 49ers' two standout players named "Smith," quarterback Alex and defensive end Justin, but a third guy with the same common surname probably deserves a bow as well. The 49ers caught some flak and generated a dose of skepticism seven months ago when they chose Missouri defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith with the seventh pick in the first round of the draft. Through 12 games, and with the NFL's second-best record, the choice doesn't look some dubious in retrospect. Despite not starting a single game, Smith has 9 1/2 sacks, and has provided the 49ers with a real presence off the edge of their 3-4 front.
"He's been what we drafted him to be," San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He's still got some things to learn in terms of the (linebacker) position, but he can definitely rush the quarterback."
There seems to be little doubt that another linebacker, Von Miller of Denver, will be the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. And deservedly so. But it's notable that Smith, in considerably less playing time, has only one fewer sack than Miller.
"There are just some guys who are born (pass) rushers, and he is," said Justin Smith.
The maturation process of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton can be observed in several ways -- his completion percentage has improved to 63.5 percent, for instance, over the past six games, as opposed to 58.5 percent in the first six outing of the season -- but some Panthers' veterans note that the top overall pick in the 2011 draft has gradually developed improved touch on the ball.
"His understanding and (mastery) of the passing game is so much better," wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "Things come so naturally to him, with his great gifts, that you sometimes forget it's a learning process. He's become so much more of a passer and not a thrower."
Surprisingly, many quarterbacks, Newton included, have noted that some of the more difficult passes for them to deliver are the shorter, "touch" throws. Newton's accuracy on short- and intermediate-range passes has improved greatly, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has pointed out, and that might well be best exemplified by his ability on screen passes. Newton has completed a higher percentage of his screens, and for more yards, than any quarterback in the league.
Through the first half of the season, Newton was most noted for throwing the ball up the field. He can still drive the ball with some of the strongest arms in the league -- his yards per attempt (7.98 yards) remains No. 7 in the league and the Panthers rank in the top five in yards per completion -- but Newton has increasingly learned when to take something off the ball, as well.
QB Alex Smith
There has been nothing formal yet, but people close to San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith acknowledged to The Sports Xchange this week that 49ers officials have unofficially broached the subject of a contract extension for the seven-year veteran and former No. 1 overall choice (2005). Smith obviously has resurrected his career this season and under the tutelage of rookie 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is performing with considerably more confidence.
What Smith and his people have to weigh is the connection to Harbaugh, his loyalty to an organization that believed in him enough to make him the unchallenged starter despite a spotty track record his first six seasons, and how the 49ers' proposal, if made, might stack up against his price tag on the open market and in a league where there is a dearth of veteran quarterbacks available.
Smith is playing on a one-year deal worth $4 million, and the early indications are that San Francisco might consider at least a two-year extension.
It is believed that the sale agreement between former Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver and Shahid Khan, who is purchasing the franchise for roughly $760 million and has already received the approval of the league's finance committee, contains no formal language to keep the Jaguars in the city. The feeling, though, from some members of the finance committee, is that Khan will keep the club in Jacksonville for at least two years.
Likewise, there is nothing formal yet, but the competition committee likely will explore the potential ramifications of moving back the NFL's trade deadline to later in the season. The possibility of delaying the deadline, which traditionally comes after the sixth week of play, was recently mentioned by commissioner Roger Goodell, and has been quietly supported by several prominent agents.
Committee chairman Rich McKay, the Falcons' team president, has said in the past that there was no groundswell of support for moving the deadline. But several committee members contacted this week by The Sports Xchange acknowledged a later deadline would create more excitement and attention for the NFL toward the latter month of the season.
Brownie points Executives in Cleveland indicated to The Sports Xchange this week that, although the team still needs a big-play receiver, no one is dissatisfied with the draft day trade in which the Browns bypassed Julio Jones, and allowed Atlanta to move way up the board for the former Alabama star. Apparently, once Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green went off the board to Cincinnati with the fourth overall pick, the Browns didn't think a wideout, even Jones, was worth the No. 6 slot.
Their poor record aside, the Browns are excited by their 2011 draft haul. Defensive linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard have each started all 13 games, at tackle and left end, respectively, and have helped comprise a nice front four that will only continue to get better. There is some thought that Sheard, who has 5.5 sacks, might be moved eventually to the right side in some situations. And Taylor, who some felt was best suited to 3-4 nose tackle, has paired with Ahtyba Rubin to give the Browns one of the best young 4-3 tandems in the league.
Second-round wide receiver Greg Little seems to have hit the rookie "wall," and has dropped some passes of late, but remains the team's leading receiver.
Cleveland officials concede that it remains difficult in some respects to fully assess second-year quarterback Colt McCoy because of the absence of a big-time receiver, but they are hardly unhappy about their overall 2011 draft haul and feel it will be a nice building block.
Off guard Given the retooling of the Pittsburgh roster that figures to take place in the offseason, the future of Chris Kemoeatu might have been shaky anyway. But after Thursday night's performance, in which Kemoeatu was flagged three times, it's much harder to see the seven-year veteran back in 2012.
Kemoeatu had already lost his starting left guard job to the more efficient, and cheaper, Doug Legursky. And his play, since the Steelers signed him to a five-year, $20 million extension in 2009, has declined dramatically.
Not all that long ago, Kemoeatu was regarded as the team's best offensive lineman, and cited as a possible Pro Bowl blocker at some point in his career. Thursday night, when he cost the Steelers a key, late-game first-down run, was merely the latest example of his fall from grace. Kemoeatu is due a base of $3.58 million in 2012, and the always cap-strapped Steelers can save nearly $3 million in cap space by releasing him.
On the flip side, the Steelers would like to figure out a way to keep left tackle Max Starks around. The onetime "franchise" player was released this season after reporting to camp after the lockout in terrible shape, but was re-signed when he lost weight, and has really rescued the unit. He is on a one-year deal.
QB Donovan McNabb
--Unemployed quarterback Donovan McNabb is said to have very little hope of playing again in 2011, but remains focused on returning to the league again in '12. That said, there seems to be little interest in this point in McNabb going to a club where he could challenge for a starting spot next year, and there is considerable doubt that he would consider a No. 2 role.
--Last week, we noted in this space the possibility that Seattle tailback Marshawn Lynch could still sign a contract extension, even though his performance has allowed him to void the final year of his original rookie contract, and qualify for unrestricted free agency in the spring. Word this week now is that Lynch is probably too tempted by free agency to accept a deal for the $5 million-or-so a season the Seahawks were considering.
--Remarkably, the Falcons on Sunday play their first outdoors game after eight straight contests in domed stadiums. Atlanta hasn't had an outdoor game since its Oct. 2 victory at Seattle. Since then, the Falcons have played five game at the Georgia Dome and road games at Detroit, Indianapolis, and Houston. Reliant Stadium in Houston, has a retractable roof, of course, but last week's game there was played with the roof closed.
--The Bengals want to work in backup tailback Bernard Scott more on third downs, but the three-year veteran seems to have developed a case of the "dropsies" of late.
--Journeyman tackle Will Svitek has played so well on the left side for the Falcons that the coaches have decided to keep him in the lineup, although starter and former first-round pick Sam Baker has just about recovered from back problems. Svitek had started only six games in his first six seasons in the NFL, but has played very well in six starts this year.
--Baltimore pass rusher Terrell Suggs is undoubtedly the most feared pocket attacker in the Ravens' lineup, but more and more opponents are beginning to pay attention to fifth-round rookie Pernell McPhee, who has six sacks in a situational role. Fellow personnel men have lauded Ravens' general manager Ozzie Newsome for his ability to unearth pass rushers even in the middle rounds.
--Dallas inside linebacker Keith Brooking, who has been relegated to a backup role in 2011 with the emergence of Sean Lee, and who has started only three games in his 14th season, may consider retirement after the season.
--There hasn't been much talk of late about a contract extension for Detroit left tackle Jeff Backus, a possibility cited several times in this space in the early part of the season. But the feeling around the league is that Backus, despite the recent collapse of the Lions, is playing some of the best ball of his career at age 34. One rival line coach recently used video of the 11-year veteran to demonstrate leverage techniques to his young charges.
The last word: "I'm not trying to be mean, but it's just depressing when I go there. There's like two cities like I don't go out to eat or don't do anything. It's Detroit and New Orleans. New Orleans looks like I'm driving through a third-world country every time I get off the plane. I'm like, 'Oh, flak jacket.' I'm trying to get down. I'm like, 'Ah, crap, I can't carry my gun here. This sucks.' " -- Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen, per Twin Cities radio station KFAN, on visiting New Orleans.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.