Let's Learn About Kick Returns
Special teams can be difficult to quantify, but if you look at enough data, you can start to see something that makes some kind of sense. That's my hope, at least, because if that's not the case then I spent a lot of time last night poring through special teams stats for nothing.
See, so far this season, the Packers special teams have gone in two different directions. Well, that's not exactly accurate. The punt return team has gone forward at a very high rate of speed, while the kick return unit has gone nowhere at all.
And that's hardly an exaggeration, really. Under the guidance of one Micah Hyde, the Packers have been downright explosive on their 16 punt return opportunities through seven games, averaging a robust 14.3 yards per return. A 93 yard touchdown certainly bumps up the average a bit, but the unit's average is still a shade over nine yards per return with Hyde's monster return taken out of the stats. More on this in a little bit.
While the Packers' punt returners have been terrific, their kick returners have been equally bad. Though they've returned just 12 kicks this year, the Packers are averaging a paltry 15.3 yards per return. You read that correctly: the Packers aren't even capable of producing returns better than they'd get by just kneeling the ball in the end zone on every kick. By way of comparison, the Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson produced 228 return yards on Sunday. The Packers have produced 183 yards all year.
Surprisingly, the Packers have historically been pretty good in the return game. For the sake of making the point quickly, here's a chart illustrating the basic stats on the Packers' kick and punt returns since 1993. Here's a quick explanation: the green line represents the average return yardage for the player on the team who had the most return opportunities in one season, while the yellow line signifies the team's average on all kick returns. The red and blue line represents the same data, only for punts. The purple line is the sum of that year's kick and punt return touchdowns.
Overall, the Packers have performed pretty well on returns over the past two decades. Desmond Howard was obviously a phenomenon unto himself, but I was surprised to see how often the Packers had success on returns, except for the Darrien Gordon year, which was pretty much an abject failure.
While it's difficult to draw many concrete conclusions from the data, I do have a couple. First, you'd think the Packers will improve in the kick return game almost by default. If I had to make this chart again, I'd include another line that shows the 20 year average for both kick and punt returns. Since I didn't, I'll tell you that since 1993, the Packers have averaged 21.49 yards per kick return, more than six full yards better than this season's average. Now, obviously they've had a few seasons where they performed below that average, but they've never been this bad. Perhaps with Micah Hyde taking over those duties, the Packers will trend a little bit more toward their historical average.
Second, it's easy to see why Mike McCarthy and company were hesitant to pull Randall Cobb from his return duties, even as he became a bigger part of the offense. Simply put, when Cobb is returning kicks, the Packers do well in the return game. When he's not, they don't.
Thirdly, I think it's interesting that other than this year, the Packers' have done basically better than ever in the years since the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30 yard line to the 35. There may be fewer kick returns in the NFL, but the Packers seem to do well when their returners do bring the ball out,