2010 Special Teams Tackles

2010 Special Teams Tackles
2010 Special Teams Tackles
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

Earlier this season, I wrote an ESPN Insider article introducing new stats to measure the best special teams gunners. I promised that we would run a list of 2010 leaders on Football Outsiders after the season, so let's take a look at these new stats and our 2010 leaders.

Return Tackles are simple: The total number of tackles (and assists) that a player makes on kick and punt returns. This doesn't count onside kicks or end-of-half squib kicks.

Corey Graham of the Bears led all players this year with 23 return tackles. (If you want to figure out each player's percentage of team tackles, he led that too, at 23 percent.) John Wendling of Detroit had 22, the only other player above 20. Wendling is very quietly one of the best gunners in the NFL; he led the league with 25 return tackles in 2009, when he was with Buffalo.

Of course, it isn't enough to just make the tackle on a return. You want to get downfield and tackle that return man before he has a chance to get his team great field position. That's where the Return Stop comes in.

The special teams ratings on Football Outsiders analyze kickoffs and punts by looking at each return compared to an average return, with a baseline based both the length of the kick/punt and the yard line where the return man catches the ball. You can read more about the system here.

When a coverage player made it downfield to get a tackle (or assist) that stopped a return for less-than-average value, we gave him a Return Stop. That includes any time a defender stripped the ball for a fumble, although it doesn't include downing punts that don't get returns.

Sam Hurd and rookie Danny McCray, both with Dallas, tied for the league lead with 17 Return Stops each. Graham was second with 16. Eric Weems of Atlanta, the NFC's Pro Bowl gunner, had a very impressive ratio of 14 Return Stops in 15 Return Tackles.

Here's a look at all players with at least 15 Return Tackles this season, plus the team leaders for any team where no player had at least 15 Return Tackles.

NFL Leaders in Return Tackles, 2010
Player Team Return
21-C.Graham CHI 23 16 70%
29-J.Wendling DET 22 13 59%
53-N.Bowman SF 20 12 60%
59-T.Shaw TEN 19 14 74%
37-G.Wilson BUF 18 9 50%
43-T.Ward CLE 18 14 78%
40-D.McCray DAL 18 17 94%
17-S.Hurd DAL 18 17 94%
52-M.McCoy SEA 18 14 78%
86-J.Casey HOU 17 12 71%
27-S.Brown OAK 17 10 59%
58-T.White NE 16 12 75%
31-H.Eugene OAK 16 8 50%
37-A.Madison PIT 16 12 75%
57-K.Fox PIT 16 11 69%
57-P.Bailey TEN 16 11 69%
14-E.Weems ATL 15 14 93%
51-D.Skuta CIN 15 9 60%
18-M.Slater NE 15 12 80%
53-M.Fokou PHI 15 9 60%
57-C.Chamberlain STL 15 12 80%
Other Team Leaders in Return Tackles, 2010
Player Team Return
23-T.McBride ARI 13 7 54%
54-P.Burgess BAL 13 8 62%
25-M.Hudson CAR 11 9 82%
82-G.Barnidge CAR 11 4 36%
59-W.Woodyard DEN 13 9 69%
35-K.Hall GB 11 6 55%
51-P.Angerer IND 13 8 62%
24-M.Owens JAC 11 10 91%
81-K.Osgood JAC 11 8 73%
10-T.Copper KC 14 10 71%
15-V.Tucker KC 14 9 64%
40-J.Amaya MIA 13 7 54%
54-J.Brinkley MIN 14 9 64%
50-M.Mitchell NO 13 11 85%
57-C.Blackburn NYG 14 11 79%
16-B.Smith NYJ 14 5 36%
36-Q.Teal SD 12 10 83%
56-D.Watson TB 12 6 50%
53-N.Koutouvides TB 12 5 42%
45-M.Sellers WAS 14 10 71%

The final stat introduced in that ESPN article was Return Saves.

This is defined as the total number of tackles (or assists) a player makes on:

a) any kickoff return that goes past the 50-yard line, or
b) any punt return of more than 20 yards

In other words, who makes plays that save touchdowns? There are only a couple of players each year who have more than one or two Return Saves. This year, four players had three Return Saves each to lead the league: Jasper Brinkley of Minnesota, Rock Cartwright of Oakland, Nick Harris of Detroit, and Brad Smith of the Jets. (Smith's job must have been to trail the play and clean up other players' mistakes, because while he led the team with 14 Return Tackles, he had only five Return Stops to go with those three saves.)

We hope to add these special teams tackle stats to all our player pages sometime over the offseason, going back as far as our individual defense stats (right now, 1997).


15 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2011, 5:00pm

#1 by Thomas_beardown // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:13pm

Interesting start, but I have a couple issues.

I'm not sure I like the idea of return stops. Lets say the average return is 7 yards, tackling a player after a 5 yard return is the same as preventing any return. I would prefer to see average yards per return given up.

My other concern is stop rate. It punishes players for making more plays. Chamberlain and Slater have higher stop rates than Graham despite making fewer stops than him, and fewer tackles that aren't stops (which presumably would have gone even further had Graham not made those tackles, which goes back to my first point). I think stops divided by total number of returns would be a better measure of stop rate.

Points: 0

#3 by Stats are for losers (not verified) // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:30pm

Or even better, assign point values to field position, and rate them in Points Above Replacement.

Points: 0

#4 by Thomas_beardown // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:34pm

That might actually be worse because gunners don't have an effect on where the punt starts from. They can only control what they do after it's kicked.

Points: 0

#6 by TomC // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:55pm

I don't mind the definition of Return Stop, but I agree that the Stop Rate statistic is misleading. I think it would be at least marginally better to use the total # of kicks you were in coverage on as the denominator. But for now I'm happy to use the approximation that all teams kick off and punt about the same amount and take absolute # of Stops as the primary statistic.

Also, I asked a question in the NFC Divisional Round Preview thread about why the Falcons had such good ST DVOA. I guess if you have a top-5 gunner that also returns kicks for TDs, that's a damn good start.

Points: 0

#10 by thok // Jan 26, 2011 - 4:28pm

You really want returned kicks as the denominator, not total kicks. If the kicker hits it through the endzone, a special team shouldn't be punished. If the returner scores a touchdown, that should count against the special teams players.

(There's some weirdness involving fumbles as well, since I don't know how those turn into tackles.)

Points: 0

#2 by Stats are for losers (not verified) // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:28pm

Instinctively, I'd think that a kicker would probably be the leader in return saves.

Regardless, these lists are impressive for the relative anonymity of the players!

Points: 0

#5 by Key19 // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:45pm

I'm surprised that David Buehler didn't crack the Return Tackles list. He must've had at least 10 tackles on kickoff coverage this year. If nothing else, I'd be willing to bet that he led all Kickers in tackles.

Points: 0

#7 by MCS // Jan 26, 2011 - 1:59pm

Odd that Dallas has two guys in the top ten and they have the exact same numbers.

40-D.McCray DAL 18 17 94%
17-S.Hurd DAL 18 17 94%

Points: 0

#11 by Temo // Jan 27, 2011 - 12:03pm

Sam Hurd seemed to have a fantastic season in coverage, and while I thought McCray did well I am surprised to see him have identical statistics to Hurd.

Points: 0

#8 by are-tee // Jan 26, 2011 - 2:08pm

Players like Brad Smith's stats have to be taken in context. His punter, Steve Weatherford, had only 27 of his 84 punts returned - that's less than two opportunities per game to even make a tackle on a punt return. I'm sure that players on low-scoring teams are similarly affected by the lack of kickoff return tackle opportunities (although they might punt more.)

Points: 0

#9 by TimTheEnchanter (not verified) // Jan 26, 2011 - 3:52pm

These seem like *interesting* stats, but I'm not sure in what way they are *useful* stats. There are so many factors unaccounted for, I'm not sure what these numbers tell me. As you mentioned regarding Brad Smith, not everyone on the coverage team's primary responsibility is to go pound the returner as soon as he catches the ball. You haven't accounted for number of opportunities (how many kicks were there). Is a lot of tackles a sign of good play, or just scheme or weak play by others. Does a high stop percentage mean they quit on a play or overrun the returner if they don't make the immediate tackle?

In addition, basing "stops" on avg return yards seems arbitrary. I don't know if these factors are "significant" but it seems like the return could be affected by the quality of the returning team (how often does that team ever get more than average return yards?), and the field position (are return yards different when bombing from your own 20 to the opponent's 35 vs. trying to pooch from midfield to around the 10?), etc. Also, fair-catches are often a sign of one or more coverage player getting in position to potentially make a "stop" but not getting the opportunity, so these situations are not represented in the data.

I look at these numbers and don't necessarily know who is actually good.

Points: 0

#12 by Temo // Jan 27, 2011 - 12:13pm

Atlanta, Seattle, Baltimore, and Jacksonville had the best Kickoff units. As a group, those teams are woefully under-represented on these lists.

Baltimore, NYJ, Oakland, and Cleveland had the best punt units. They too are under-represented here.

Points: 0

#13 by Aaron Schatz // Jan 27, 2011 - 12:30pm

Often, that's because of touchbacks on kickoffs and out of bounds or downed punts, which of course would not show up with tackles.

Points: 0

#14 by Temo // Jan 27, 2011 - 2:43pm

Right, so is there a lesson here that kickers and punters may have a greater effect on special teams performance than the gunners?

Probably can't say that with confidence, since there's any number of variables, especially on punts (good punt coverage may "force" fair catches and would be able to better down balls near the endzone and not allow touchbacks).

Points: 0

#15 by Thomas_beardown // Jan 27, 2011 - 5:00pm

is there a lesson here that kickers and punters may have a greater effect on special teams performance than the gunners?

I think this is probably true. Which is why kickers and punters get paid more than gunners.

Points: 0

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