Kickoff rules have made returners restless
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Trindon Holliday stands just 5-foot-5 and might
tip the scales at 170 pounds if he wolfs down a big breakfast. Still,
he figures he knows exactly how those big, beefy baseball sluggers must
feel drawing intentional walks.
Holliday, the Denver Broncos' speedy kick returner, is flustered that
he doesn't get the chance to showcase his skills all that much on
kickoff returns, and he's not alone.
"You feel like it's time for you to spark your team and you get so
anxious and you see the ball go over your head again and again and you
get frustrated," said Holliday.
So, when the ball does land in his hands, even if it's very deep in the
end zone, even if the wiser thing to do is take a knee, he wants
desperately to bring it out.
"It might be the only one you get all day," Holliday said.
Holliday has six special teams return touchdowns in 29 career games,
including playoffs, one every 4.8 games, which ranks him first in the
league since the 1970 merger. But he hasn't scored since a 105-yard
kickoff return against Philadelphia in September, a career-long drought
of eight games.
Restless returners are as much a part of the NFL nowadays as the aerial
fireworks show that light up the scoreboards every week.
"I don't like taking a knee because I'm a defense guy," said Chiefs
returner Quintin Demps, a safety. "So, I'm probably mad because it
means they scored, and if they scored a touchdown, I want to score.
Yeah, it gets frustrating sometimes. We're all competitors. We want the
ball in our hands and we want to make a play."
It's not always up to the kick returner. Sometimes his coach or a
teammate is the one giving him the green or the red light.
Sometimes it doesn't work out and the returner is smothered before he
can reach the 20-yard line. The elite ones, though, can still change a
It just doesn't happen as often as it used to.
For the first time in NFL history, more than half of all kickoffs could
end up as touchbacks this season, three years after the league moved
the kickoff up from the 30-yard line to the 35 to reduce the number of
returns and, therefore, the number of concussions.
The league says its studies show head injuries on special teams plays
have gone down as a result of the change and the data shows a drastic
rise in the number of footballs flying out of the back of the end zone
and returners taking a knee rather than bringing it out.
According to STATS:
—The season is tracking at 1,285 returns, which would be the lowest
since the expansion to 32 teams in 2002. Not surprisingly, 2011 (1,375)
and '12 (1,395) have been the next two lowest. Prior to that, 2009 had
the lowest number of returns, at 2,004.
—The touchback percentage is 49.4 percent. There's never been a season
where more than half the kicks are touchbacks. Prior to '11, the
highest percentage was in 1993, when 27 percent of kickoffs were downed.
—The average kickoff return is now 23.5 yards. Over 2011 and '12, that
number was 22.2.
However, a big return just isn't what it used to be.
—The average starting position on kickoffs is now the 22-yard line. It
was 26.8 in 2010, the year before the rule change.
For many teams, the risk/reward ratio for 2 extra yards just isn't
For teams with a dynamic returner, it is, but Chicago's Devin Hester,
who has 19 return TDs in 124 career games, said he doesn't ever grow
impatient and bring one out that he shouldn't.
"It's up to the coaches at the end of the day," Hester said. "When I
bring those out 8, 9 deep, Coach will tell me beforehand, 'No matter
how deep it is, bring it out.' So, it's really not up to me."
Sometimes, it's actually up to the opponent.
"It's pretty frustrating because you are back there for pretty much
nothing, unless they want you to return. It's all up to them," Giants
kick returner Jerrel Jernigan said.
"You have to control yourself. If you get antsy and try to bring one
out that is eight yards deep, the kickoff coverage is already down
there and it's probably going to get you inside the 15."
Twenty-one of the top 25 worst overall average starting field positions
since 1991 have come after the 2011 rule change on kickoffs, according
to STATS, including eight this season.
Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the league with a
33.3-yard kickoff return average and has two TD returns, said he's not
bothered by kickoffs sailing over his head.
"Nah, it makes me feel good," he insisted. "It makes me feel like
they're scared of me or they respect me back there."
And when they do end up in his hands, he's not about to take a knee.
"There's not one I catch that I don't feel like I can break," Patterson
said. "Every time I catch one I feel like I'm housing it."