Leodis McKelvin’s ruinous fumble last Sunday for the Buffalo Bills against Kansas City. (AFP)
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Of 60 returned punts last week in the NFL, four were fumbled away. Gift turnovers. One out of every 15.
Two of those fumbles flipped the game’s momentum for good. One set up the winning score. Of the other 56 punts returned, the average runback was just 8.5 yards. Only one was taken back for a score, and only two were returned for 25+ yards.
Last week, then, NFL teams were twice as likely to fumble away a punt than return it for 25+ yards. So, seriously, is it really worth returning punts anymore?
It’s just a one-week sample, I get it. Outliers and such. But it does boldface the argument.
This week I asked longtime NFL special-teams guru Mike Westhoff to weigh in. Before sharing his insights, let’s look deeper into the issue.
For the past week, I’ve been tweeting that if I were a head coach in the NFL, I wouldn’t return a single punt. Crazy talk? Perhaps.
But it’s not a novel thought. You know that famous high school coach down in Arkansas who never punts and usually onside-kicks? Rarely mentioned are his other bold, paradigm-altering strategies. One is that his team seldom fields punts.
“It’s a game of scoring points, which only happens when you possess the ball,” Kevin Kelley, coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, told ESPN a few years ago. “You don’t even try to return punts or to block punts, because getting the ball back is far more important than risking a muff or a roughing-the-kicker flag.”
Kelley usually is content to let punts roll dead, to ensure his offence takes possession.
Every NFL head coach lectures us that the most important statistic in football is turnover margin, that fumbles and interceptions are to be avoided — above all else, at all costs — because they lose you games.
So if that’s true, then why continue catching and returning punts, when doing so might wind up not just giving the opposition 40 free yards of real estate, but potentially flip the game’s momentum for good?
The latter is what happened at Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday. Buffalo led Kansas City 13-10, with nine minutes left, when the Bills forced the Chiefs to punt from deep in their own end.
Bills returner Leodis McKelvin caught the punt, then was instantly stripped of it at the Buffalo 26. The Chiefs recovered and two plays later scored the go-ahead touchdown, which stood as the winning points. If Bills head coach Doug Marrone had just let the punt roll dead, his team would have been in good shape to win the defensive struggle.
The other game-turning gaffe last Sunday was at Wembley in London, when Jacksonville led Dallas 7-3 in the first quarter. The Jags forced a Cowboys punt, but return man Ace Sanders coughed it up inside the Jacksonville 15. Dallas recovered, and three plays later took the lead for good in a 31-17 victory.
Later in that game Sanders had one of last week’s two 25+ yard returns. Which of his plays — the fumble or the long return — do you think impacted that game the most? Exactly.
Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Cleveland’s Jim Leonhard also lost fumbles on punt returns in Week 10.
Counting unfielded rollers, fair catches and touchbacks, teams last week punted 142 times. That’s exactly how many punt-return touchdowns were scored in the previous 10 seasons (170 weeks) from more than 20,000 punts. That’s how rare punt-return scores are.
What’s more, in each of the past 10 seasons the majority of NFL teams did not return so much as one punt for a score.
The usual drawback of not fielding a punted ball, then, is what? Five? Ten? Fifteen yards of lost field position on the roll? But remember, the ball bounces back toward the kicking team sometimes. And illegal-block-in-the-back penalties on returned punts are among the most often thrown flags in the game.
So why not just stop fielding punts altogether?
“I think that’s going too far,” said Westhoff, who coached special teams in the NFL for 30 seasons with the Colts, Dolphins and Jets before retiring after 2012.
There are ways to field punts smartly, Westhoff emphasized.
“You should be able to catch a punt in most situations,” he said. “If there ever was a time when the guy can’t get underneath it because it’s blowing all over the place, I never criticized him for letting it hit the ground.
“Now, I wanted the ball caught. Plenty of times just a very simple fair catch is a prudent play. Even a really good play.”
Miami’s O.J. McDuffie in the ’90s and Santana Moss last decade were among Westhoff’s star punt-return pupils. Westhoff coached them up to limit the chance of a ruinous fumble or muff.
“We’d stay after practice and I would shoot the jugs (football kicking) machine to the guy, and make him catch it with one hand.
“But the main point of it was — and I did a ton of other one-handed drills, too — if you can’t be in a position where you can’t catch it with one hand, don’t catch it. Leave it alone. Get out of the way. Don’t reach for it, don’t drive for it, don’t do anything heroic. That’s craziness.”
But Westhoff did allow that it’s “not the end of the world” to not field a punt.
Right. Just as your odds of ever getting eaten by a shark drop dramatically if you never swim in an ocean, so your odds of fumbling or muffing a punt if you never field one under duress.
Deferring to Westhoff’s wisdom, I’ll amend my new credo accordingly:
If I’m an NFL head coach, my team let’s every punt hit and roll unless there’s a clear-cut, easy fair-catch to be made.