After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
17 Feb 2010
by Mike Tanier
With the 31st pick in the 2010 draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Javier Arenas, cornerback, Alabama.
The Colts' most persistent weakness struck again in the Super Bowl. It wasn't their inability or unwillingness to properly blitz. It wasn't the size of their defensive line. It had nothing to do with Peyton Manning.
The Colts' biggest weakness is their special teams. The Saints' onside kick got the most attention, but that was essentially a fluke play. It's not like the Colts are victimized for nine surprise onside kicks per year. The Colts have suffered from a week-in, week-out weakness in the return game for years. Since the Colts drafted Manning in 1998, they have ranked 20th or below in the Football Outsiders special teams ratings every single season except for 2003, when they ranked 14th.
The kickoff return units were the culprits in the Super Bowl. The Colts started their drives on their 24, 11, 30, and 14-yard lines in the second half, so it's not like they missed that onside kick because they were setting up some marvelous blocks. This year, Chad Simpson and others averaged 22.2 yards per return, 18th in the NFL.
Overall, the bigger problem is punt returns. T.J. Rushing and a few others averaged just 5.2 yards per return last year. Their longest return was 22 yards. Rushing averaged just 5.5 yards per return in the postseason. His lone Super Bowl return, in the first quarter, netted zero yards. The Colts drove 53 yards and settled for a field goal. You have to wonder if a 10-yard return would have led to a touchdown, which would have led to a different game.
The return game was also a problem in 2008, when the Colts ranked 28th in the league in kick returns and last in punt returns. They were 22nd in kick returns in 2007, and while they were sixth in punt returns that year, a 90-yard touchdown had a disproportionate effect on their average because they returned just 25 punts all season. Remove it, and their average drops from 11.2 to 7.9, which is still pretty good by the Colts standards. Rushing and others also call for a high number of fair catches, which don't appear in the return averages.
The Colts can live with weak return units because their offense is incredible. But imagine if they took back a few precious yards of field position. The average Colts drive in 2009 started on the 27.0-yard line, the third-worst field position in the league. (The Raiders and Titans wore worse). The league median is 29.5, two-and-a-half yards away. Give Peyton Manning 2.5 more yards, and short field goals become touchdowns, while punts from midfield become field goals.
In other words, if the Colts can keep everything else equal while quickly upgrading their return game, they will return to the Super Bowl next year, and probably win it.
That's where Javier Arenas comes in.
Arenas is a 5-foot-9, 195-pound cornerback who has been climbing draft boards after a week of solid Senior Bowl practices and an interception in the game itself. He can help the Colts as a nickel cornerback, but that's not why they should draft him. In four years as the Tide's punt returner, he averaged 10.6 yards per punt return, with seven touchdowns.
"His quickness is unbelievable," said Ian Rapoport, who covered Alabama football for years before joining the Boston Herald as a Patriots reporter. "He can be a special punt returner." If that 10.6-yard return average seems unimpressive, it's because Arenas rarely called for the fair catch as a freshman or sophomore. He called for just six fair catches in his first 58 returns, a sign that he mixed a lot of catch-and-crash no-gainers with his touchdowns. "The idea of fair-catching drives him crazy," Rapoport told me. Crazy or not, Arenas was more prudent in 2009, with 20 fair catches in 53 returns.
Arenas could face the same problems in Indianapolis that Rushing has dealt with: none of the blockers are very good, largely because the Colts salary structure is top-heavy and they cannot afford veteran special teams specialists. Their punt return unit features Kelvin Hayden and Tim Jennings blocking on the wings, with Mike Hart, Jamie Silver, Ramon Humbar and Aaron Francisco responsible for most of the interior blocking. I scouted the blockers during the playoffs and determined that Hayden is terrible, Hart is pretty good, and none of the rest are making an impact. The overall return unit won't change drastically in the offseason. A Colts punt returner must be able to make things happen on his own.
That's what Arenas can do. Rapoport noted that the blocking at Alabama wasn't very good. Arenas is powerfully built and often bounces off the first tackler, assuming he doesn't avoid him. "He can side-step, dodge the first guy, and be at full speed in about two steps."
Arenas can also contribute on defense. "He can start as a fifth defensive back now," Rapoport thinks. Arenas lacks size and deep speed, so he fits best as a nickel player in a team that gives cornerbacks a lot of deep support -- just like the Colts. Mix him in with Hayden and youngsters Jarroud Powers and Jacob Lacey, and the Colts will have the depth to overcome the injuries in the secondary that plagued them this year.
Granted, Arenas is a first-round reach. The Senior Bowl interception, plus another long return, got him some attention, but Rapoport believes Arenas will lose some momentum at the Combine. "He'll run well, but he's not going to run an elite time." Arenas is projected as a second- or third-round pick by most experts right now.
But the 31st pick in the draft is essentially a second-round pick. In that slot, the Colts aren't going to find a player at most positions who can help them now. They could draft a linebacker to make them slightly better, a tackle to make them slightly deeper. Or they can automatically turn one of their few minuses into a plus with a player who can turn those 65-yard field goal drives into 65-yard touchdown drives by adding seven or eight yards to the average punt.
As reaches go, that's not much of a reach.
(Last week, I got together with superstars from the NFL and the recording industry to record a song to help the Haiti relief efforts. The song will soon be available for download, but you can enjoy the lyrics and the star-studded roster right here on Walkthrough.)
TONY ROMO: There comes a time, when we must heed a certain call!
CARRIE UNDERWOOD: Put our differences aside for people in need.
JESSICA SIMPSON: Though I may be napalm, I still can do my part.
JOHN MAYER: This will make you forget my Internet screed!
CHAD OCHOCINCO: We ...
DARRELLE REVIS: Are the world! We are the Walkthrough! We are the ones who make a better day, so let's start giving!
ochoNFLcinco85@Twitter: Trapped on Revis Island and covered too closely to sing in fundraiser. Send Help!
johnCmayer@Twitter: I can help.
ochoNFLcinco85@Twitter: Anyone else?
johnCmayer@Twitter: Seriously, helping you will make people forget certain words I used recently.
ochoNFLcinco85@Twitter: Who are you again? Brady Quinn? One of those Naked Brothers?
JAKE DELHOMME: We are the ...
SHELDON BROWN: World!
JAKE DELHOMME: We are the ...
JARIUS BYRD: Walkthrough!
JAKE DELHOMME: I don't know why I can't sing a line without an ...
DARRELLE REVIS: Interception!
PEYTON MANNING: There's a choice I'm making. Audible! Quincy, change the song! "Sun City" on Three! "Sun City" on Three! Dallas, you sing Lou Reed's lines. Pierre, you are Miami Steve. What do you mean you don't know who Miami Steve is? How old are you? Oh yeah. Call it off! Inside Zone! Inside Zone!
JOSEPH ADDAI: We are the world. We are the Walkthrough. I am the one who cleans up all the mess when Peyton audibles.
KENDRA WILKINSON: There's a choice we're making. Hank, take the mic while I pole dance!
HANK BASKETT: We're ... Whoops!
CHRIS REIS: It's true I made a brighter day for you and me!
MATT SCHAUB: (Appearing because Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and six other quarterbacks mysteriously came down with strep throat.) We are the World! We are the Walkthrough! We are the ones who give you something to watch besides the Pro Bowl!
ANDY REID: Ummm, I choose to start with the injuries. Ummm, Carlos Santana, broken guitar string. Kanye West, ruptured street cred. will.iam., torn a.c.l. Fergie, bruised LLL. Ummm, we're saving our own lives. It's true, we make a brighter day. The time is yours.
CHORUS: We are the World! We are the Walkthrough! We are the ones who recycle old gags when it's offseason!
ME: Here's the choice I'm making. If 100 different readers type "We are the Walkthrough!" in the comment thread, I will donate my check for this week's Walkthrough to the Haiti Relief Fund in the name of Football Outsiders. That way we can all do our part.
The Walkthrough about Colts Deserters -- fans who raised a super-sized fuss when the team pulled its starters in Week 16 -- generated a lot of feedback, good and bad. Of course, I wrote that to stir the pot, and I expected some negative responses.
Many people disagreed with my ultimate premise: that fans who demanded refunds from the Colts or spent days decrying Bill Polian as a confidence man were guilty of a foul against fandom. Some argued that fans have a right to boo and be angry (I would never suggest otherwise) and that fans have a right to astronomical expectations for their team. There's no reason that a Colts fan, or any other fan, should be satisfied by a Super Bowl three years ago, or a string of 12-win seasons, or the promise of a possible Super Bowl to come. Fans have a right to expect and demand an undefeated season, or multiple Super Bowls. Fans shouldn't be ridiculed or given (imaginary) punishments for setting high expectations and expressing their anger when the team falls short.
Those arguments are correct. Ultimately, your fan experience is completely and totally yours. I can't tell you how to be a fan. It's a relationship that belongs to you and only to you.
Which is exactly why you should try to make it better. It's an obligation not to me, or your team, or your fellow fan, but yourself.
You have the power to decide what you will find satisfying or intolerable. The more things you find satisfying, the more satisfied you'll be. It's a pretty simple concept. It applies to everything: your career, your neighborhood, your marriage, and your fan experience.
If only a Super Bowl win will satisfy you, you will be dissatisfied, on average, by 96.875 percent of all your team's seasons. If that Super Bowl only brings you fleeting joy, you are in bad shape, because it may be the only one you will experience in your lifetime. If you can find the joy in other accomplishments -- a Super Bowl loss, a 13-3 season, an ordinary win on an ordinary Sunday -- then your fan experience will be much more rewarding. If you cannot, that's your prerogative.
Of course, no one wants to become a Stepford fan, appraising the team like a tee-ball parent. "Oh, they lost 31-7, but it's all about the spirit of healthy competition!" Those boos are a release, and they are as important a part of fandom as cheers. Trust the Philly fan: I have uncorked many a throaty boo, usually for the referees or the opponent, and have felt the cathartic giddiness that comes with finally being able to take out my frustrations in a way that's inappropriate at home or at work.
But again, this isn't about booing. This is about writing angry letters, about waiting on hold the day after the game to vent on talk radio, about harboring and expressing long-standing contempt for an owner/executive/coach/player who by most accounts is both successful and professional. Those acts aren't spontaneous or primal, like a bloodthirsty boo. They are the results of consideration and thought: it takes time to write a letter, and sports talk stations give you plenty of hold time to consider the tenor of your comments. Hostile calls and letters are the results of lingering anger, the kind that grows into sprawling negativity, the kind that can creep out of fandom and into other aspects of life. Lions fans, who have no other outlet for their frustrations, may have no choice but to revel in the negativity. Other fans of bottom-feeders are in the same boat. Most of us, though, have a choice whether to live win-to-win or loss-to-loss.
Of course, you are entitled to your anger, no matter what team you root for. It's your team, and it's your anger. I know enough fans whose entire relationship with their team is based upon dissatisfaction: the team doesn't pick the right free agents, doesn't draft well, doesn't win the big games, doesn't blow out bad teams convincingly enough, doesn't care about the common fan, and charges too much for hot dogs. Victories are greeted by nitpicking, losses by ridicule. These fans watch every game and know every player; they are as much fans as I am. If they were Colts fans, these guys might have used their season tickets as baby wipes before returning them after Week 16.
It's their fan experience. It appears to be one of misery. I don't know what the rest of their lives are like. Maybe they need something to be miserable about. I don't. I want my Sunday afternoons to be as pleasant as possible. I choose to find satisfaction with my team, whenever I can. I can only suggest you do the same. It makes for a better experience.
169 comments, Last at 04 Mar 2010, 6:34pm by Not Saying