Return specialists running more, scoring less

While returning kickoffs for TDs has never been easy, it has never been as hard as it's been this season, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: October 23, 2006, 12:39 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- Before Steve Smith developed into one of the NFL's premier wide receivers and a Most Valuable Player candidate, the Carolina Panthers' star was an electrifying return specialist.

In fact, when the Panthers selected Smith in the third round of the 2001 draft, they did so in large part because, though there were some questions as to whether his lack of size would ever allow him to become a big-time receiver, there were never any doubts about his return skills.

Sure enough, as a rookie, Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

It's not a skill Smith employs much anymore -- he has logged just 15 kickoff runbacks since the end of the 2002 season -- but one he'd certainly perform again if asked.

"Because it's so exciting," Smith said Sunday, following the Panthers' 17-14 loss here to the Cincinnati Bengals. "It's a game changer. You score a touchdown on a kickoff return, I mean, people don't expect it. Even you don't expect to do it, you know, because it doesn't happen very often at this level."

Rock Cartwright (31)
AP Photo/Matt SlocumWashington's Rock Cartwright left Dallas in his wake on a kickoff return for a TD, one of just two in the NFL this year.
Not through the first seven weeks this season.

Through Sunday's games, there have been just two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2006 -- a 100-yard runback by Rock Cartwright of Washington against Dallas on Sept. 17 and the 103-yard return by the New York Jets' Justin Miller against Indianapolis on Oct. 1.

So far, return specialists have rung up a little more than 10 miles on kickoff runbacks, but their teams haven't really gotten much mileage out of it on the scoreboard.

Two scores on 760 kickoff returns, that's it.

It isn't as if teams and individual return men haven't been proficient on kickoffs. The leaguewide average is 22.4 yards; if that held up over the course of the season, it would be the highest in at least the past 15 years. The average for 2005 was 22.3 yards. And in Sunday's dozen games, the average for 94 kickoff returns was a robust 23.2 yards.

As usual, though, there were no touchdowns.

Extrapolate the current numbers over the entire season, and the projection is for just five touchdowns on kickoff returns. That would be the fewest in the NFL since 1993, when there were only four.

Only twice since '93, when there were just nine scores each in 1995 and '96, did the touchdown total dip under double figures. The average number of returns for touchdowns since that miserable '93 season, when the leaguewide mean on returns was a piddling 19.5 yards, is 13.6. Since 2000, it is even higher, at 14.0. There were 12 kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2005.

It should be noted that some of the NFL's most dangerous kickoff return threats, such as Jerome Mathis of Houston, have been injured this season. Mathis was second in the league in 2005, averaging 28.6 yards per runback; he earned a Pro Bowl invitation as a rookie and was the only NFL player to return two kickoffs for scores. But he hasn't stepped onto the field yet in 2006. The other Pro Bowl return specialist in '05, Koren Robinson, recently was suspended for the entire season. Tab Perry of Cincinnati, who established a team record in 2005 for returns (64) and return yards (1,562), was placed on injured reserve Saturday with a hip injury sustained a month ago.

The result: Not as many long returns in 2006 and, obviously, far fewer touchdowns.

In the season's first 99 games, going into Monday night's Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants matchup, there have been only 14 kickoff returns of more than 50 yards. And there are still 11 franchises, more than one-third of the teams in the league, who don't have a single kickoff return for longer than 40 yards. The Denver Broncos' longest kickoff runback is 23 yards.

Granted, since the Broncos have surrendered only 44 points and two touchdowns in six games, their opportunities have been few. But a long return of just 23 yards? C'mon, guys. In Sunday's victory over Cleveland, the Broncos had one kickoff return, for 12 yards.

"It only takes one time," said Kenny Watson of Cincinnati, who has replaced Perry as the Bengals' primary kickoff returner. "I mean, you're always just one key block or one missed tackle away [from a touchdown]. But, for whatever reason, I guess things just haven't fallen into place yet this season."

That's for sure.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.