Big plays lacking on punt returns

Over the first 12 weeks of this season, return specialists have cried foul over the seemingly exorbitant number of fair catches being forced by the legion of directional and hang-time punters now in such preponderance in the league.

"Just about everyone is concentrating on net [yardage] and maybe sacrificing a little bit of [gross] distance for hang time," noted Indianapolis Colts punt return ace Troy Walters. "You are seeing so many fair catches now, it's unbelievable, really. There are punters out there, and special-teams coaches, basically trying to eliminate the return game."

And, at first blush, succeeding at it.

Walters should know, since he has more fair catches (19) than returns (14) in 11 games, and since his 7.1-yard average is nearly two yards lower than the standard he set during his first four NFL seasons. In fact, there are 10 punt-return specialists who already have double-digit fair catches. Also notable is that two-thirds of the league's punters have forced 10 or more fair catches. One result of all the hand-waving histrionics: The ball isn't getting into the end zone, with just five punts returned for touchdowns in the first 176 games of the '05 season, a rate that projects to having the fewest touchdowns on punt runbacks since 1989, when there were five.

Kickoff returns for touchdowns are down as well, with just nine so far, which projects to only 13 for the season. At the current pace, the combined kickoff and punt returns for scores would represent the fewest since 1995. But it is the lack of scores off punt returns that is the more alarming of the two.

At the current pace, there would be only seven punt returns for touchdowns this season, four fewer than in 2004 and nearly eight less than the average for the past 10 seasons. In 2002, by contrast, a whopping 22 punts were returned for scores. Two years ago, 18 punts were run back for touchdowns. And then the number dropped precipitously to 11 in 2004, with the downward spiral continuing so far this season.

No player has more than one punt return for a touchdown in 2005. The five players who have scored: Chad Morton (New York Giants), Bobby Wade (Chicago), Otis Amey (San Francisco), Antwaan Randle El (Pittsburgh) and Mewelde Moore (Minnesota).

But it's not only touchdowns that have been blunted in the punt-return game this season. The league leader in average yards per punt return, among players with more than 20 runbacks, is Baltimore's B.J. Sams, at 11.6 yards. Only once since 1970 has a player led the NFL with a lower punt-return average. That came in 1971, when Speedy Duncan of San Diego was the NFL champion with an anemic 10.6-yard average. Since then, the league leader has averaged less than 12 yards on just four occasions.

Even including Minnesota's Moore, who has just 15 returns but is averaging 12.1 yards, only three players currently have double-digit averages. In '04, the number was eight. In 2003, it was 14. Oh, for those good ol' glory days of, say, 2002, when the leaders in the two conferences both averaged more than 16 yards per punt return. Talk to specialists now, and it's like 2002 was some long-ago golden era for return men, one they seem to feel won't return (pardon the pun) anytime soon.

"Because guys are kicking the ball so high now, angling it outside the [yard-marker] numbers and toward the sideline, and because the coverage players are better, it's getting harder to have the kinds of returns we've had in the past," said Seattle return specialist Jimmy Williams, who has 14 returns and an equal number of fair catches this year. Williams led the NFL with a gaudy 16.8-yard average in 2002. "It's like the [return man] is at a disadvantage now. The opportunities just aren't there, right?"

Well, perceptions aside, that's not exactly right.

Thus far this season, there have been 1,690 punts in the league, so -- counting touchbacks (143), kicks that were out of bounds (112) or downed by the coverage units (231), and fair catches (351) -- 49.5 percent of the punts were not returned. With just 50.5 percent of the punts having been run back, it would, indeed, appear that return men are not being afforded many chances for an explosive play.

Except for this: The 50.5 percent return rate, projected over the full season, would rank as the highest since 1990, when 51.9 percent of the leaguewide punts were returned. So the claim that there haven't been as many viable return chances in 2005 simply doesn't ring true. On a percentage basis, there have been more opportunities than in most seasons to author the breathtaking, serpentine touchdown return.

Surprised? Yeah, so were we, because our perception, like that of most NFL observers, was that fewer punts were being returned this year, and that was why touchdowns were so diminished. In actuality, that isn't the case, as the 12-week numbers demonstrate. Fact is, during 1990-2004, there were only six seasons in which the punt-return ratio topped 48 percent. Yet in that time frame, there were just two seasons, 1990 and 1991, in which there were fewer than 10 returns for scores. The punt-return rate for the past 10 seasons is 47.7 percent.

So if the rate of returns is actually higher this season, at least through 12 weeks of play, why are the dividends, in terms of touchdowns, so diminished? With just one of every 170.6 punt returns resulting in a touchdown, but return men getting more opportunities than they seem to realize (or admit to), where's the problem? One might suggest that in this age of specialization, the punters and special-teams coverage players are, indeed, a lot better than in the past. But the NFL is a reactionary league, one where every upgrade in any facet commands a response, and so the return men should be better, as well.

But, according to several special-teams coaches queried about the lack of production in the punt-return game, they aren't.

"For one thing the term return 'specialist' doesn't apply as much as it once did," noted a prominent NFC special-teams coach. "There are a lot of teams putting big-time players out there as return men in an effort to get something going, but in most cases it hasn't really worked. I mean, Steve Smith [of Carolina] is playing 65 snaps a game as a wide receiver and still returning punts, and something's got to give. The kid from Tennessee [rookie Pacman Jones] is a terrific return guy. But the Titans picked him in the first round to play cornerback. So that's part of the drop-off."

Perhaps the most candid reply from one AFC special-teams coach, though, was his belief that return men aren't as productive in 2005 because they are "settling" for fair catches and taking far fewer chances on returns.

"Guys don't have as many [nerves] as they once did," said the AFC coach. "It's become sort of a play-it-safe job for some return men. And, the truth is, there are probably too many [special teams] coaches now who stress the need to just catch the ball. You tell a [return man] that too often and he's going to think, 'Hell, if I just fair catch the ball, I won't get into any trouble.' I don't want to take anything away from the punters, since there are some great ones out here. But give a guy an excuse to take the easy way out, and that's generally what he does. That's part of why there are so many fair catches."

There is also a sense that the fearlessness that was once a prerequisite for returning punts has been replaced by a fear factor. Not fear in the classic sense of the term, but rather a reluctance to risk life and limb to possible injury and, thus, possible loss of income. It takes a special breed of kamikaze to return punts in the NFL -- and, frankly, he might be an endangered species.

"There probably aren't as many crazy men around as there used to be," veteran return specialist Tim Dwight of New England said. "Guys are a lot smarter now."

That is not to suggest that today's punt returners aren't as tough as their predecessors or to impugn anyone's manhood. But salaries are to the point now that it's difficult to continually throw your body into harm's way without at least considering the financial ramifications of such derring-do.

Mark Jones of Tampa Bay, the man with the most punt-return chances in the league, has 34 runbacks but 13 fair catches. Antonio Chatman of Green Bay has 34 returns but a dozen fair catches. Jacksonville's Alvin Pearman has 33 runbacks but 12 fair catches. On the other hand, while Kansas City's Dante Hall is averaging a career-low 6.3 yards, he has run back 30 of 35 opportunities, meaning he has kept alive his chances of scoring on most balls kicked to him. Baltimore's Sams likewise has 30 returns and only five fair catches.

"My [mind-set] is that, as a punt returner, you're only going to get five or six chances a game," Sams said. "You take a fair catch, that's one less chance to score."

Unfortunately, that kind of attitude is hardly prevalent around the league. Return men will probably continue to insist their opportunities are fewer now, but some of those lost chances are of their own making, many special-teams coaches feel. To be sure, it's a boom-or-bust league at times. But just because punters are booming their efforts longer and higher than in most seasons doesn't mean there aren't chances to bust a long runback.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.