Column: Kickoff returns are down, and so is one of the best who ever returned them
Not many happy returns. Not many at all.
The NFL has all but phased out one of its most exciting plays -- the kickoff return -- with about three out of four kickoffs now resulting in touchbacks.
That’s a complete reversal from 10 years ago, when 76.4% of kickoffs were returned through the first month of games.
The shift is certainly not by accident. The league felt it essential to address one of its most dangerous plays, where car-crash collisions were common, and injuries plentiful.
Through the first four weeks of the season, 173 of 620 kickoffs were returned for an all-time low of 27.9%, down from 32.2% at the same point last season.
Not everyone is a fan the changes.
“It’s different because usually when I’m looking at kick returns, I’m thinking about strategy and field position and stuff like that,” Brian Mitchell said. “Now, you just know teams are going to get the ball on the 25-yard line.”
Mitchell has a special perspective on the topic. In 14 NFL seasons with three NFC East teams -- Washington, Philadelphia, and the New York Giants -- he set NFL records with 14,014 yards in kickoff returns and 4,999 in punt returns. His 13 touchdowns on special teams are second in league history to Devin Hester.
“You’ve got to have a little screw loose to return kicks,” Mitchell conceded this week by phone. “I’m not trying to compare playing football to being a soldier, but the military and the fire department, they run to the chaos. Basically, that’s what you’re doing.”
Of course, there is a science and strategy to it. Mitchell was a master of getting upfield as he was catching the ball, instead of hesitating for a moment to ponder his first move, and disguising to coverage teams which direction he would be heading.
Chargers prepare for home game against AFC West rival Denver Broncos, who have lost twice on last-minute scores, with Melvin Gordon expected to play.
A lot of players, among them Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown, were happy to return punts, but swore off returning kickoffs. Mitchell, who did both, understands that thinking.
“In my day, you’re returning every kick and you’re running into crazy people coming down the field,” Mitchell said. “On a punt return if it’s a short kick or a high kick, you can throw a fair catch up and protect yourself. If the kicker doesn’t kick it into the end zone, you’re basically going to return 99% of the kickoffs. We didn’t have a lot of kickers that kicked the ball into the end zone, and those that did -- like Morten Andersen -- they drove the ball [low and far], and my coach would tell me, `’If you’re four or five yards deep, bring it out.’”
In the last year, the league has made multiple rules changes to discourage kick returns. In 2011, kickoffs were moved up from the 30-yard line to the 35, making it easier for kickers to reach the end zone. Five years later, touchbacks were made more enticing, as the NFL gave the receiving team the ball at the 25 instead of the 20.
More changes followed. The league banned players grouping to form blocking wedges, and in 2018 disallowed running starts by coverage teams, and confined eight of the 11 members of the return team to a “setup zone,” a 15-yard swath near midfield.
Mitchell believes the NFL also has quietly made kicking balls livelier and therefore more capable of reaching the end zone.
Theoretically, because kickoff returns are less frequent, teams would devote less time in practice to those sorts of plays. John Fassel, who coaches special teams for the Rams, said that isn’t necessarily the case.
“We don’t spend less time on it, or put less emphasis on it,” Fassel said. “Because when you do have to cover it, or do have to return it, you know it’s really hard on both ends. You don’t want to de-emphasize it then all of a sudden get in a windy game, or when the balls aren’t flying, and say, `Oh, gosh, I wish we would have spent more time.’ But it is a dilemma, for sure.”
Fassel said he wouldn’t be surprised if the percentage of returned kicks inches up as the season progresses.
The Rams gave up only one touchdown pass in winning their first three games. Since then they’ve lost twice while surrendering eight scoring catches.
“Early in the season you see a lot higher touchback percentages,” he said. “But as the season goes on, as kickers’ legs get tired or weather changes, you get more returnable balls. I’ll be interested to see if that changes.”
Rick Neuheisel, who coached this offseason in the Alliance of American Football, the now-defunct league that eliminated kickoffs and onside kicks, said he envisions the NFL eventually doing the same.
“I think what’s going to happen is people kind of like the kickoff as a ceremonial thing,” he said. “I think it’s going to become like the opening tip in basketball. I think you’re going to have an opening kick, but then it’s just going to trade, with teams getting the ball at the 25.”
Mitchell, for one, would mourn the death of that play -- even if it meant his NFL record would be guaranteed for posterity.
“I want to see people be able to return kicks,” he said. “I know how exciting it was for my team when I returned a big kick. I knew I could be a spark plug for my team.”
As it is, he’s a relic of yesterday’s game.
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