Punt Returns Providing Impact

While kickoff-return touchdowns are far below the 10-year average, punt-return touchdowns are on a record pace. The Packers' Randall Cobb is one of three players in the league with one of each. We examine the trend with national perspective from Len Pasquarelli.

One side of the equation didn't surprise Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum in the least.

The other side of the equation, however, caught him off-guard.

Because of the rules change that moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, there have been fewer opportunities for the returners. So, not surprisingly, there have been fewer touchdowns than usual.

On the other hand, there have been 18 punts returned for touchdowns, which is on pace to tie the NFL record of 22.

"Randall's got one and Peterson's got four," Slocum said of his rookie returner, Randall Cobb, and Arizona's electric rookie, Patrick Peterson. "That's two young guys that have come in and added to that number. Devin (Hester's) doing what he normally does. Denver, they've got Eddie Royal with one and (Eric) Decker's got one. Until we look at the whole season and see why, that's an interesting statistic."

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 12 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.

The 18 punt returns for touchdowns were the most ever in a season through 13 weeks of play, according to the NFL — there were no return scores in Week 14 — and equals or surpasses the number for a full season for every year since 2002. The 2002 season produced the most punt return touchdowns in history, 22, a mark that would be tied this season if the pace holds true for the final three weeks of the season.

Punt returners are averaging a healthy 10.0 yards per punt return, the best average in more than a decade. Cobb ranks sixth with a 12.0-yard average.

While Cobb — one of three players in the league with touchdowns on kickoffs and punts (Hester and Ted Ginn are the others) — said returning punts is more difficult because the coverage unit can be right in his face when catching the ball — clearly game-breaking plays are more apt to be made on punt returns.

"It's still hard to return a punt for a touchdown; a lot of things have to go your way," Brandon Tate of Cincinnati, who returns punts and kickoffs, told The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli. "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, to nobody's surprise, has 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 through 2010 was just more than 15 touchdowns on kickoff runbacks. This year, the pace is for 10 kickoff-return touchdowns.

Kickoff return averages have increased in 2011, to 23.9 yards, after settling in at slightly more than 22 yards over the previous decade. Cobb ranks third with a 28.0-yard average. But fewer kickoffs have been run back. Green Bay's Mason Crosby, for instance, has 42 touchbacks in 13 games compared to a total of 47 in his 64 career games entering this season. Returners eager to make a play often have to gamble on a kick that is 5 or 7 yards deep in the end zone.

The result: "You can have a 24- or 25-yard return," Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, who returns punts and kickoffs, told The Sports Xchange, "and still come up short of the 20-yard line."

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-to-1.

In 2010, in the name of safety, the NFL banned wedge-blocking schemes involving three or more players. That, Slocum said, turned kickoff returns into something resembling punt returns.

"What it's done, it creates the need to be good from a coverage standpoint in terms of the spacing," Slocum said. "When you have a bunch of blockers together, you have a rugby scrum. On the other hand, when you have everything spread out, the spacing gets maximized so the defense gets stressed as a result. It's no different than an offensive formation, in my opinion."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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