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Punt Return Production Doesn't Always Equal Touchdowns

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Punt Return Production Doesn't Always Equal Touchdowns

On January 26, 1997, the Green Bay Packers captured their 12th world championship and third Super Bowl title. Brett Favre threw two touchdowns and rushed for another to lead the Green Bay offense, while Reggie White anchored the defense with three sacks. Still, when all was said and done, neither of those Packer legends was judged to have had the biggest impact on the game. Instead, the Super Bowl MVP award went to Desmond Howard, who became the first—and so far only—player to receive the honor based on his special teams contributions.

Retellings of Howard’s 1996 campaign often come off as the stuff of legend, as if the former Heisman Trophy winner was taking kicks to the house every other opportunity. In reality, Howard returned three punts and exactly zero kickoffs for touchdowns in the 1996 regular season. Come playoff time he added another punt return score in a Divisional victory over San Francisco and, of course, the 99-yard kickoff return that served as the Super Bowl dagger.

This isn’t to say Howard’s numbers weren’t impressive. After all, the three punt return touchdowns in 1996 ties him for second all-time in the single season record book.

No, the bigger point is the impact he had on the game even when he wasn’t celebrating in the end zone.

Desmond Howard returned a franchise record 58 punts for and NFL record 875 yards during the Super season of 1996. His 15.09 yards per return put him at the top of the single season team leaderboard among those with at least 30 punt returns in a season. Adding in the 12 returns he had during his abbreviated second stint with the team in 1999, Howard finished his Packer career averaging 13.83 yards per return, a little over four yards per return better than any other Green Bay player with at least 50 career punt returns in the post-merger era. What’s more, Howard’s three punt return touchdowns in 1996 are enough to put him atop the career list in Packers history.

While it would be ideal to score a touchdown on every single punt return, it’s not going to happen. For that reason, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to dwell on the fact that the Packers haven’t returned a punt for a touchdown since the 2014 regular season finale when Micah Hyde went 55 yards against Detroit. Perhaps the more important question to address is how to maximize return yardage on the returns that don’t go all the way.

The secrets to being a great punt returner are, well, not that secret. Teams generally will first and foremost look for two things: reliable hands and a quick first move. A certain fearlessness doesn’t hurt either.

Between Trevor Davis and Randall Cobb, the clubhouse leaders to land the 2017 job, Green Bay currently has two options that check both the reliability and quickness boxes.

Davis’s straight-line speed is something to behold, and his shiftiness was on full display during his 68-yard punt return score in the team’s first preseason game.

Cobb has handled the Packers’ punt return duties, in whole or in part, ever since his rookie year. After returning 26 punts in 2011 and 31 in 2012, Cobb’s return numbers have declined as he’s become more of a focal point in the offense.

And that is perhaps where Davis holds the biggest edge.

With Cobb almost certainly cemented into the top three at wide receiver, and an all-out war breaking out on the receiving depth chart, Davis has a clear path to the 53-man roster if he can continue to produce in the punt returner role. And while he surely takes the field with the intention of scoring on every single return, production in that spot means positive chunks of yardage.

Not that Davis won’t be called on while the offense is on the field—even Desmond Howard caught 13 balls in 1996—but his greatest opportunity will be to make a difference 12 yards at a time, with a few explosions thrown in along the way.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (19) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

PatrickGB's picture

Let's not forget the help he had on that return. The blocking was really what stood out to me. GBP,s special teams have been awful for so long that we have kept players like Goodson and Janis for that alone. If Zook can get this years players to block like they did against the eagles then this may finally be the year that our STs do not rank at the bottom. It's not just the returner that makes special teams good it's all the supporting cast. Even the punter plays a critical role on field position when we eventually punt. The gunners and the rest of the ST players play a major role if we are ever to have a decent third phase to our team. Teams are Offense, Defense and Special Teams. We need all three.

billybobton's picture

this is so true and so accurate
Gunter made a brilliant mental call and then a great physical play
Janis DOMINATED his man and kept him inside

the blocking was key to the TD and those two were key to the blocking

dobber's picture

Good points. That was a well-blocked return, but the guy who SHOULD'VE made the play--they talk about making the first guy miss--never broke down in any way to make the tackle. He got past the gunner (Hawkins) easily, crossed the field uncontested and UNBLOCKED, and made that "first guy miss" easy for Davis because he was out of control. I give Davis credit for making the play. That's ultimately what they need: guys who make plays. But the defender made it easy for him, too.

chugwater's picture

I think some of this boils down to teams who make punt/KO return a priority. With changes to the CBA after 2010, teams have less overall practice time which puts a premium on what you focus on. GB rushing was poor last Thursday due in part to a summer camp emphasis on passing plays while neglecting the rushing game.

I can't help but think special teams gets the short straw. Not just at GB, but league wide.

Slim11's picture

There is one more factor not yet mentioned.

During the return, Davis picked up Gunter as a blocker. He moved behind Gunter so Gunter could provide the protection. After Gunter's block, Davis had only the Eagles' punter to beat and that wasn't even close.

Finwiz's picture

So Davis made a great return because of one block by Gunter. OK - got it!
What is peoples fascination with this "slow" cornerback?
I'd bet if I looked back at that play, it was more a case of him "getting in the way", than actually blocking someone.

Bugeater's picture

That was their 3rd Super Bowl win.

Bedrock's picture

I agree, Patrick.
...special teams plays are no different than any other. Each play requires 11 in a coordinated, cohesive, well-timed effort. Like Zook says, they only get "first down" to be successful. With younger teams, the challenge to get largely untrained-in-special-teams guys to be cohesive is greater.

Since '61's picture

Kick off returns are about field position and punt returns are about possession. Most important for the punt returner is to catch and secure the football cleanly. Then one move and hopefully gone or at least some positive yardage. I don't need a big average return, just secure the possession for the offense. Punt returns for TDs are big plays but with our offense just secure the ball and let Rodgers take it from there. Thanks, Since '61

flackcatcher's picture

Classic example of that is last years play off game against the giants. The kick off to the corner and step out on the giants 7? The whole series Capers went ultra aggressive with man up on every giants receiver and stoned them. Punt return Hyde side steps finds a crease on the side and gets 12? yards to put them on the giants 40? Packers scores in short order to take control of game. ST tilted the field then changed the game in the 3th.

flackcatcher's picture

Lets not forget that both MM and TT changed their approach regarding ST. Ted drafted for position, he wanted football players first and foremost. The front office is now looking for football players who are also athletes. Players who can really get down the field. That's a real change for this team over the past three years. MM has finally understood you cannot do all three phases of the game on the cheap. Choices have to be made, sacrifices done for the good of the whole. In the past ST were done on the cheap to protect the offense. Not any more, the defense has been protected and ST elevated. But the packers front office seems to have found a way to provide for the offense at the same time. Impressive, very impressive.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Davis is averaging one fumble every 7.5 touches. He has muffed some in practice this season. It is a disqualifier for me. He needs to show better hands in practice and in pre-season games.

Reliability is absolutely NOT a box that Davis has checked.

croatpackfan's picture

When you do not like one, you really do not like him...

But, I wonder, who is better to make judgement? Aaron Rodgers or you TGR? Because, Aaron said that Trevor is the best "bad ball" catcher on the whole Packers roster. So, to whome I should believe?

RCPackerFan's picture

Rodgers also brought him up by himself. Rodgers went out of his way to mention how good of a camp Davis has had. That usually says something.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Croat, you should believe ME!!! Kidding aside, perhaps you should do as I suggest: be aware of any beat writer tweets about Davis during practice, watch him during the preseason games to form your own opinion as to whether Davis has put in enough work to overcome his ball security issues, and then decide. My stats are facts: one could argue that one of his fumbles should have been a penalty and he really has a fumble once ever 15 touches, but that still is horrific. It is also a small sample size, so I'm perfectly willing to watch him over 4 preseason games and read the tweets: if Davis has no more fumbles I think he's got team made. I am really hoping for a vertical threat, preferably with excellent speed at WR - failing the elite speed, someone that can get deep at any rate.

BTW, if I had to decide now, I'd keep Davis, Yancey, Dupre, and Max if we keep at least 7, assuming they're all healthy. That is subject to change, and not sure what I would do when Allison returns from suspension.

croatpackfan's picture

TGR, I very often have similar opinions on players, situations, events, games, actions to you. But, sometimes I do not agree. This is that moment.

Trevor Davis had very good game against Atlanta last season (season game, not postseason!). He catched TD on back shoulder throw whic was not so easy to do.

But, I remember when Aaron was talking about Jared (Abby), His mouth are full of Abby and we all knows how that finished.

However, what I saw and what I see when watching Trevor is obviously different from what you see. And, that is OK. I'm not on Jeff Janis train, and I'm not on Trevor Davis train, but I would keep both for different reasons. Jeff is wonderfull ST player, while Trevor can be successfuly used in games, too.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Dear Croat,

I have to fess up: I forgot to add in the 11 fair catches Davis made last season to the stat I cited. Arggh!! So, Trevor has 2 fumbles in 26 touches.

Trevor worked on catching punts during the off season. I am perfectly willing to read the tweets and watch 3 more games to see how he looks catching punts. My concern is solely on the catching part of being the PR; we both agree that he is dynamic after he catches it.

gr7070's picture

Unfortunately Cobb's athleticism has disappeared, including his quickness.

His days as an effective PR are gone. Beyond a secure reception, he offers nothing.

I don't want him back there.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Cobb has battled injuries the past 2 years. 2014 he looked electric 2015 without Jordy and injured we all know what happened. We got a glimpse of what Cobb can do in his 3 TD game against the Giants. I'm wondering what a healthy Cobb is capable of and how mich of a toll the past 2 years of injuries had on him. I am hoping for the best and keeping my expectations modest.

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