NFC South: Why so few special-teams TDs?
In writing about Bucs special-teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea on Wednesday, we mentioned that the Bucs have the NFL's second-longest drought without a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown -- the team also is also one of just eight not to allow such a return for a score in the last two seasons.
It's very much an NFC South thing, this lack of return touchdowns -- in the last three seasons (since the NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line), the Bucs, Saints, Falcons and Panthers have combined for just two total touchdowns on punts and kickoffs. By comparison, Baltimore's Jacoby Jones and ex-Broncos returner Trindon Holliday each have four scores individually in that span.
There's a huge disparity in return touchdowns -- both scored and allowed -- from division to division. The NFC South has just two return touchdowns, but also is tied for the fewest return touchdowns allowed in the past three seasons, matching the NFC West with just seven total. The other extreme? The NFC North, whose four teams (Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota) have combined for 16 return touchdowns while allowing 13 since the 2011 season. The AFC West isn't far behind -- 14 scored, 12 allowed -- followed by the AFC North (13/10) and AFC East (12/8).
So why so few big returns? There are several factors you could point to, starting with dominant kickers to take away the kickoff return -- not just for touchdowns, but taking away returns themselves. The four NFC South teams all ranked in the NFL's top 10 in touchback percentage last season -- Carolina (and kicker Graham Gano) led the way with touchbacks 77.6 percent of the time (the Bucs and Michael Koenen ranked sixth, one spot behind Atlanta). All four teams were in the top 12 in 2012 (the Bucs and Koenen led the league) and the division had three in the top seven in 2011 as well.
I'd also point to generally conservative mentalities when it comes to electing to return punts -- Carolina's Ted Ginn Jr. ranked second in the NFL in fair catches last year with 26, and Tampa Bay's Eric Page had almost as many fair catches (20) as he did punt returns (23). Compare that to Kansas City -- where O'Dea was special teams assistant coach last year -- and you see Dexter McCluster with 58 punt returns against just 11 fair catches, with a better average than Page. When O'Dea talks about aggressive play, that's what he means.
There also haven't exactly been electric returners in the division -- Page's long kickoff return for the Bucs last year was just 44 yards, but that's still better than the season longs for Ginn (38) or Atlanta's Jacquizz Rodgers (34), with both getting 25 returns last year. Even the Saints' Darren Sproles couldn't get more than 32 yards on a kickoff -- the division's longest return was an 82-yard kickoff return by New Orleans' Travaris Cadet against the 49ers.
It's also worth noting that the division's only two TD returns in the last three years were both by players no longer in the NFC South -- Sproles, traded this spring to the Eagles, had a 72-yard punt return to score in 2011, and Carolina got a 101-yard kickoff return from the wonderfully named Kealoha Pilares (yes, from Hawaii) in 2011, but he's been out of the league for a year.
Can the Bucs end their drought with a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown in 2014? The team still doesn't know who will handle either duties this fall, but the schedule could help their chances. The Bucs get four games against the NFC North, which has matched the NFL high with 13 touchdown returns in the last three seasons, and they also get to face Washington, which gave up an NFL-high four returns for scores last year.