The punt return: is it too risky a play in the NFL?


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.

‘We’ve just got to regroup and stay tight,’ Bills D-tackle says

‘A lot of people don’t want to see us do well’

BILLSThe Buffalo Bills have a short week to forget about their gnawing collapse against the Chiefs, to get ready for the Dolphins, and to block out the criticism.

“We’ve just got to regroup and stay tight,” Buffalo’s backup defensive tackle Stefan Charles said in the Bills locker room Sunday, after blowing a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead and losing to Kansas City 17-13.

The Bills play in Miami on Thursday night against the Dolphins, one of their AFC East rivals. Both teams are 5-4, desperate not to fall farther from the playoff chase.

The manner in which the Bills cacked up another seemingly sure victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium had critics of head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett spinning #Bills search columns on TweetDeck like slot machines.

“A lot of people don’t want to see us do well,” said Charles, the second-year player from Toronto. “How we respond to that is crucial. When can use that as motivation. We’ll be all right.”

Bills fffffffritter away what would have been a big win over Chiefs


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – In NFL stats parlance, FF stands for “forced fumble.”

In Ralph Wilson Stadium parlance, it’s the consonant you hear rolled for emphasis on the word fans bark in disgust after seeing it all go cruelly, tragically, predictably, wrong again, just when their Buffalo Bills are on the cusp of getting somewhere as a team.

As in . . . “Fffffffffiretruck.”

Only the fans contract that somewhat.

Because of two ruinous, second-half FFs (the forced-fumble variety) — and thanks to one momentum-flipping, killer run from Jamaal Charles — the Kansas City Chiefs inexplicably rallied to beat the Bills 17-13 on Sunday, before 68,119 mostly livid fans at the Ralph.

“It’s disappointing. Frustrating. All those words,” said Bills tight end Scott Chandler, a grizzled veteran in these cackups.

The Bills were achingly close to earning their earliest sixth victory of the season since 1999, the last year the club has reached the playoffs. Instead, they dropped to 5-4.

The Chiefs improved to 6-3.

“I don’t know what to say about it,” Chandler said in a quiet Bills locker room dripping with disappointment. “We’ve got to be better.”

Outside of that one killer play, Bills defenders could hardly have played much better. They beat up Smith — sacking him six times, hitting him 10 times. They otherwise held Charles to 59 yards. They limited the Chiefs to just a field goal through three quarters. And they surrendered 278 yards.

“They didn’t earn it. Nonetheless, they got it,” said Toronto-raised Buffalo defensive tackle Stefan Charles.

The Bills offence stumbled most of the game, as it usually does. Yet all it had to do to win was (1) not turn it over, and (2) cash in just once in the red zone.

Couldn’t do it.

The first of Buffalo’s two second-half fumbles is destined to squeeze onto a packed showcase shelf in the Bills Pantheon of Guttings.

Early in the third quarter, Buffalo was a split-second from going up 17-3. But no.

Fourth-string running back Bryce Brown — promoted to active duty because of injuries to C.J. Spiller (cracked collarbone) and Fred Jackson (who played sparingly Sunday with a groin injury) — burst off right tackle and into the clear, headed for a touchdown.

But Chiefs safety Ron Parker dived at him at the 5 and knocked out the ball, which bounded into the end zone.

Tight end Chandler then had an easy chance to scoop it up for the touchdown anyway. But he stone-handed it out of the back of the end zone.


Chiefs’ ball at the 20.

Asked afterward if he’ll have nightmares about that play, Chandler practically whispered, “I hope not, but . . . maybe.”

A few minutes later, Buffalo quarterback Kyle Orton piloted the Bills right back down to the KC 2-yard line. There he threw two incomplete passes and Buffalo had to settle for the second of two Dan Carpenter field goals, to go up 13-3.

Early in the fourth quarter the Chiefs were still in it, facing a 4th-and-1 at the Buffalo 39. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid quickly decided to go for it, calling a nifty misdirection run for Charles.

All the blocking went to the right. So did Bills defenders. But quarterback Alex Smith faked a handoff that way to fullback Anthony Sherman, and quickly pitched back left to Charles.

No one there. Gone, touchdown.

“Maybe we were a little discombobulated,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said of the play. “It actually crossed my mind to just stand up and take a timeout real quick.

“We crashed down on it too hard, and when you do that with (Charles) he can take it the distance.”

With 9:57 left, the Bills still were in good shape, up 13-10. The defence forced a Chiefs punt from their 16. That’s when normally reliable Bills returner Leodis McKelvin got pounded — and fumbled — at the Buffalo 26.

The Chiefs recovered.

Charles burst 18 yards on another counter then, from the Bills’ 8, Smith faked a handoff to Charles and ran into the end zone around left end, with 8:59 left.

The Bills had a chance to retake the lead with under three minutes left. But once they reached the KC 15, Orton threw four incompletions — two to star rookie receiver Sammy Watkins (who appeared hampered by the groin injury he suffered in practice last week), two to slot receiver Chris Hogan.

The Bills continued to be brutal in the red zone, failing to score a touchdown on 15 snaps. Orton missed on his final six red-zone throws.

“We were right there,” Orton said. “We were knocking on the door, and I really thought we’d get it done.”

Added Stefan Charles: “It’s hard, especially when you’ve got guys giving that kind of effort and it doesn’t pan out into a W.”

Fffffffrustrating, indeed.


Forget stats, ‘dirty tough’ Smith gets it done

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Alex Smith hardly ever impresses you as an NFL quarterback. Especially on any stats sheet.

In Kansas City’s 17-13 win over Buffalo on Sunday, he threw for but 96 yards in the first half, 81 in the second, didn’t throw a touchdown and was sacked six times.

Lousy day, right? Not really.

BILLSSmith (my pregame photo, right) and the Chiefs offence might have been rendered utterly impotent by a wicked Bills defence until late in the third quarter, but Smith never lost faith. His teammates similarly kept the faith.

And somehow, the Chiefs offence got it done.

“That’s how he is,” Kansas City head coach Andy Reid said of Smith. “He’s also a phenomenal leader, and he’s dirty tough.

“He handles everything and he never complains about anything. He’s not afraid to get after you, but at the same time he’s going to build you up. He’s like a coach on the field there.”

On the complexion-changing drive of the game, with Kansas City behind 13-3 late in the third quarter, Smith cranked up his level of play. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 30 yards before getting crunched on a sack to set up a third-and-16.

Smith shook it off to throw the prettiest, most clutch pass of the afternoon — a 15-yarder perfectly placed at the sideline on a deep out to Dwayne Bowe.

That set up Jamaal Charles’ 39-yard touchdown burst on 4th-and-1 that changed the game’s momentum for good.

Smith scored the winning points on a fake-handoff-and-run from the Buffalo 8 with 8:59 left.

The 30-year-old didn’t throw an interception, and the Bills had been tied for the lead league with 12. Indeed, Smith is careful with the football, always, and doesn’t lose games for his team.

“We came in at halftime and there wasn’t any panic,” Smith said. “We all knew (we were) one play away from changing the game … These games are sweet when you come out on top.”











Bills can pick up 6th win earlier than any year since 1999 — but will they?


Here’s another factoid that underscores the futility of the Buffalo Bills this century.

If the Bills beat the Chiefs on Sunday (1 p.m. EST, CTV Ontario), it’ll mark the earliest they’ve won their sixth game of the season since 1999.

The only two times in the 2000s the Bills have won as many as six games before December came in 2000 (on Nov. 12, 20-3 over the visiting Chicago Bears) and 2008 (on Nov. 23, 54-31 over these same Kansas City Chiefs).

No wonder the club has gone 14 years without reaching the post-season — the longest streak of ignominy in the league. Having to win four or five games every December ain’ta gonna do it.

For way too many years now, the Bills have been trying to convince themselves, let alone all of us, that they’ve really, really, turned the corner this time. That they really are a playoff-calibre team again. Only to stop short of that corner … Every. Single. Time.

Long-time sports reporters in Buffalo are so tired of writing this story. I am already, and I’ve only been covering the Bills for three years now. In my time the team is 0-for-“win-this-and-they’ll-prove-they’re-serious-about-making-the-playoff” showdowns.

That said, is this finally THE time? The corner-turning season, at long last? Several encouraging developments suggest it could be.

But bear in mind that even if the 5-3 Bills should defeat the visiting 5-3 Chiefs at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it will guarantee them nothing. Remember, three years ago the Bills started 5-2, rewarded quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with a $59-million deal — then fell apart, not winning again until Christmas Eve in finishing 6-10.

For this team, considering its closing schedule, improving to 6-3 entering mid-November is practically mandatory. What once shaped up as three very winnable games over the final three weeks of November — next Thursday night in Miami, then at home against the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns — now appear appreciably tougher.

The Jets remain pathetic at 1-8, but the Dolphins and Browns each have won three straight.

The Bills must get to nine wins by the end of this month, before their December schedule from hell: at Denver, vs. Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England. The Bills can’t count on more than one win there.

So, if 10-6 is the AFC wild-card playoff threshold — presuming that’s their likeliest playoff avenue, what with the New England Patriots playing so well now and on trajectory to win the AFC East again — then this game against Kansas City is about as important an early November game as this franchise has played in a long time.

Bills head coach Doug Marrone as much said this week his team cannot become preoccupied by all these how-to-get-to-the-playoffs scenarios.

“Every time we go out there is an opportunity to change where you are,” he said. “We’ve got to go out and beat a very good Kansas City team. Really that’s it … We’ve got to work ourselves and put ourselves in position to be where we want to be at the end of the year.”

So what of this game?

The Bills might have to face the Chiefs without star rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who suffered an undisclosed groin injury in practice on Wednesday. He did not practise Thursday or Friday and is listed as questionable.

The big question is, if Watkins cannot go do the Bills have enough other receiving options for quarterback Kyle Orton to be effective enough against that wicked Chiefs pass rush?

The Bills’ running game already had been a massive disappointment this season before C.J. Spiller broke a collarbone three weeks ago and Fred Jackson suffered a bad groin pull. Jackson is questionable to play Sunday. Anthony (Boobie) Dixon is expected to start, with Bryce Brown backing him up.

The Chiefs running game has experienced no such woes, with Jamaal Charles and Nile Davis combining for 845 yards, seemingly able to grind out yards whenever needed. If the Bills can continue their stout play against the run (they rank eighth in the league, allowing 92 yards per game), then this game at Ralph Wilson Stadium probably will look like most we’ve seen in 2014 — a sack festival.

Buffalo’s starting edge rushers (Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes) have 12.5 sacks; Kansas City’s (Justin Houston and Tamba Hali) have 16. And both defences get more pressure up the middle than most.

Thirtysomething passers Orton and Kansas City’s Alex Smith had better not hold onto the ball for long. Whoever can move the chains the best with quick passes gives his team the best chance to win.

If it’s Smith, and not Orton, then Buffalo’s playoff chances will take another huge step back from that elusive, proverbial corner.

Deep-sixed, you might even say.



NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals fly to success on aggressiveness, aggressiveness — always aggressiveness


Carson Palmer, not washed up. (AFP photos)

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If you’re thinking you’ve never seen a Cardinals team this good this deep into an NFL season, well yeah.

It’s been 48 years since the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals had sole possession of the best record in the NFL nine weeks into a season.

Whether you’ve ever seen a Cardinals team so successfully aggressive in just about every phase is another matter. You probably haven’t.

At 7-1 Arizona is the NFL’s only team with just one loss. That came at now 6-2 Denver, when the Cards were down to their third-string quarterback. They’ve won four straight since.

On Sunday Arizona plays host to the St. Louis Rams (4:25 EST).

The Cardinals actually have been on a roll since Week 8 of last year. Their 14-3 record (.824) in that time is the league’s best.

It’s time we all stop referring to the Cards as a surprise team. They’re good — long past the point of some short-term fluke.

CARDS“Certainly, I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made on the field,” Cardinals president Michael Bidwill (right) said in a phone interview this week. “Hopefully we can continue to keep up the great performances on the field, get into the playoffs and compete to get into the Super Bowl.”

Gen. George Patton’s pet three-word plan for victory in World War II was, “Audacity, audacity, always audacity.”

The victory plan for this incarnation of the Arizona Cardinals is, “Aggressiveness, aggressiveness, always aggressiveness.”

It’s no coincidence that the Cards have a GM, Steve Keim, who’s unafraid to make bold moves via free agency (LT Jared Veldheer), via trade (quarterback Carson Palmer) or via the draft (early gambles on wideout John Brown and quarterback Logan Thomas this year, and previously troubled cornerback Tyrann Mathieu last year).

It’s no coincidence that the Cards have a head coach and offensive designer, Bruce Arians, who famously and continuously loves to stretch the field in games, empowering Palmer to launch deep-pass daggers as frequently as possible, and no matter the circumstance.

And it’s no coincidence that the Cards have a defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, whose attacking, in-your-face unit ranks third in the league against the rush and is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, with 12, despite having faced four of the NFL’s Top 10 highest-scoring offences so far.

I asked Bidwill if it’s all just coincidence, or if hiring these aggressive-minded point people was his plan as team president a year ago January.

“Well, I think (aggressiveness) is something that I like,” Bidwill said.

“We’ve got a next-man-up philosophy here that’s very real. It is a mentality that’s in our locker room. And it’s an aggressive one.

“When you look at the way we play, it is aggressive. And that’s what you’ve got to do in the NFL if you want to win games. Players have completely bought into it.”

Aggressiveness does not equate to recklessness. Bidwill was quick to point out that difference.

“Our mentality is to play smart, not scared. It’s something you hear Bruce talking about week in and week out on the practice field,” said Bidwill, whose grandfather Charles began family ownership of the Cardinals in 1932, when the franchise was based in Chicago.

The team relocated to St. Louis in 1960, and to Phoenix in 1988, where it was called the Phoenix Cardinals until adopting its current name 20 years ago.

After QB Kurt Warner led the Cards to the Super Bowl six years ago — a loss to Pittsburgh — the team’s on-field success regressed, until GM Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt were fired at the end of the 2012 season, following a second 5-11 record in three years. Bidwill, who has run the day-to-day operations of the Cardinals since 2007, hired Keim and Arians as replacements almost immediately.

CARDSKeim (right) had moved up the player-personnel side of the Cardinals organization for 14 years.

“He’d done an excellent job in the roles he had served previously,” Bidwill said. “I thought he was ready for the next step. When we went through the interview process, he had a great plan.

“We talked about the type of coach that we wanted to hire, we talked about the kind of players and the kind of mentality, the kind of accountability and performance that we wanted this team to reflect.”

Bidwill said the Cards years earlier had sought permission to interview Arians when he was offensive coordinator “with previous teams” — presumably, he meant the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2007-11 — but were denied, because the Cardinals sought him for a sideways move.

“I had not met him before, but I knew a lot about him, and knew his reputation,” Bidwill said.

“We hit it off great. We talked about his plan, his vision, and the type of football that he’d play. There was just no doubt with his track record of success at various places, and the fact that he had taken over for Chuck Pagano (in Indianapolis in 2012, and done so well) for 12 games … I felt strongly, and Steve felt strongly, that we were going to have success.”

One of the first bold decisions of the new regime was to acquire the strong-armed Palmer from the Oakland Raiders in a trade. Most people in the league chuckled, sure that the veteran was washed up.

CARDS“We’d heard that he might be available,” Bidwill said. “Steve and Bruce (left) looked at the tape, they looked at what he had done.

“We felt like he could really excel in our offence, and that he still had a few years yet to play. Looking at the tape they felt that he would fit in great here once he learned the offence. And he’d be surrounded by some great receivers.”

True enough, particularly perennial all-pro Larry Fitzgerald. But also Michael Floyd, and now a pair of dynamic youngsters: speedy, sure-handed rookie John Brown, and productive second-year backup Jaron Brown.

Palmer has been exceptional in the clutch this year. He’s the league’s highest-rated passer on third down (129.5, with an 8-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio), and has two fourth-quarter comebacks against a pair of pretty good teams, Philadelphia and San Diego.

The comeback against Philly was classic Arians, classic Palmer. Trailing the Eagles 20-17 with 1:33 left, and facing a 3rd-and-5 from Arizona’s 25, Palmer didn’t look to move the chain. Rather, he looked deep and found John Brown, all 179 pounds of him, streaking between the deep safeties.

Palmer aired it out, Brown made a fabulous snare and ran it in for the winning score.

It was Palmer’s fourth TD pass of 75+ yards over the past two seasons. Only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford have as many.

No wonder the Cardinals on Friday rewarded Palmer with a new three-year contract, $50-million extension. He’s earned it.

CARDSThe whole league is now buzzing about these Cardinals. If they were before, they sure aren’t going to sneak up on anyone now. Especially not when Seattle and San Francisco are looking up at them in the NFC West. The Cards still must play the Seahawks twice.

It was in Week 16 last season that Arizona pulled off a big upset victory at Seattle, 17-10 — the first time the Seahawks had lost at home in two years. In hindsight, Bidwill said that was a significant moment in the franchise’s fast turnaround.

“That, for us, was validation that we were on the right track,” he said. “Certainly it felt like there was a confidence level inside of our locker room, and inside our organization, that we could go and play with the best teams in the league.”

The Cards barely lost to San Francisco the next week to miss out on the playoffs — becoming only the third team in NFL history with a 10-6 record to miss out on the post-season.

On Sunday, the Cards take on 3-5 St. Louis. The Rams last week knocked off the Niners in San Francisco, sacking Colin Kaepernick eight times. The Rams pass rushers will be coming after Palmer.

Bidwill said he and the team understand that teams now will be pointing toward the Cards, rather than perhaps underestimating them.

“It’s something that winning organizations need to accept,” he said. “There’s going to be a target on you. If you want to be in the playoffs and compete for a chance to play in the Super Bowl, then you’re going to have to win a lot of games (in that circumstance).”

As it happens, this season’s Super Bowl XLIX is Feb. 1 at University of Phoenix Stadium — the Cardinals’ home field.

Arians has been motivating his players by telling them they cannot surrender their locker room to some other team for the Super Bowl. Before the season that might have sounded like mere wishful thinking. Now? Not so much.

“Bruce is unapologetic about wanting to win the Super Bowl this year, because he wants to win it every year. We all do,” Bidwill said. “So why not be talking about it? It is in Arizona. We’d love to do it, to make that history, and we’re excited about that possibility.

“But we also have a lot of football yet to play.”



The Cardinals — where they’re at

RECORD: 7-1, tops in the NFL

REMAINING GAMES: St. Louis, Detroit, at Seattle, at Atlanta, Kansas City, at St. Louis, Seattle, at San Francisco.

CHANCE FOR HISTORY: Beating the Rams and improving to 8-1 would mark the best start in the history of the franchise founded in 1920.

WEST BESTS EAST: The Cardinals already have swept the NFC East, having defeated Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Giants. The Cards have not lost to an NFC team.