2010 Special Teams Tackles
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.
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).