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Best Return Games of All Time

Posted by Chase Stuart on June 9, 2008

Which teams have had the best return games since the merger? How have punt returns and kickoff returns changed over the years? How in the world did the 2007 Chicago Bears returners wind up in the bottom five of one list and the top five of another? And finally, did you know the greatest return season since the merger happened last year? Sit back, relax, and get ready to hear about some returners.

Let's begin with some league wide data on kickoff returns. The main stats -- kickoff returns, kickoff return yards and kickoff return TDs -- do a pretty great job on capturing the ability of a kickoff returner. Unfortunately, our database currently does not have kickoff return fumbles separated out from regular return fumbles. So to rate kickoff returns, we're going to use adjusted yards per kickoff return, which I'm pretty sure I just created. The same logic applies to adjusted yards per kickoff return as it does to adjusted yards per pass attempt -- a touchdown is worth about ten yards. So the formula is simply (Kickoff Return Yards + 10 * Kickoff Return Touchdowns) / Kickoff Returns. Practically, this has little effect compared to simply using yards per kickoff return, but it's Just Plain Right, so that's what we'll do.

	KR	KR Yd	Y/KR	KR TD	AY/KR
2007	2037	46132	22.65	 25	22.77
2006	2037	45908	22.54	  9	22.58
2005	2137	47626	22.29	 12	22.34
2004	2155	46740	21.69	 17	21.77
2003	2161	46595	21.56	 13	21.62
2002	2205	48020	21.78	 17	21.85
2001	1997	43233	21.65	 10	21.70
2000	2040	44727	21.93	 15	22.00
1999	2035	43196	21.23	 13	21.29
1998	1857	41357	22.27	 18	22.37
1997	1890	41587	22.00	 14	22.08
1996	1919	42164	21.97	  9	22.02
1995	2043	43767	21.42	  9	21.47
1994	1842	39096	21.22	 16	21.31
1993	1381	26888	19.47	  4	19.50
1992	1393	27059	19.42	  6	19.47
1991	1487	28094	18.89	  8	18.95
1990	1632	31228	19.13	  6	19.17
1989	1725	33473	19.40	  9	19.46
1988	1695	33820	19.95	  8	20.00
1987	1681	32664	19.43	  6	19.47
1986	1693	33447	19.76	  7	19.80
1985	1732	36363	20.99	  8	21.04
1984	1744	34544	19.81	  5	19.84
1983	1781	34816	19.55	  3	19.57
1982	 975	19589	20.09	  2	20.11
1981	1709	34681	20.29	  5	20.32
1980	1764	35143	19.92	  8	19.97
1979	1781	36110	20.28	  6	20.31
1978	1633	34915	21.38	  7	21.42
1977	1374	29396	21.39	 11	21.47
1976	1527	32743	21.44	  2	21.46
1975	1471	32993	22.43	  7	22.48
1974	1390	30812	22.17	  4	22.20
1973	1264	28394	22.46	 10	22.54
1972	1284	29613	23.06	  6	23.11
1971	1335	30694	22.99	  9	23.06
1970	1280	28235	22.06	 15	22.18

As you can see, kickoff return averages tell a somewhat interesting story -- check out the breakdown:

                KR	  KR YD	     KR TD     AY/KR
1994-2007	28,355	  620,148    197       21.9
1979-1993	24,173	  477,919     91       19.8
1970-1978	12,558	  277,795     71       22.2

My buddy Mike Herman is my source for all special teams questions, and he's got a pretty good explanation for those splits. Starting in 1979, the NFL prohibited players on the receiving team from blocking below the waist during kickoffs, punts, and field-goal attempts. In 1994, the NFL moved all kickoffs back from the 35 to the 30-yard line. One of the main reasons for this change was to increase the number of big kickoff returns, and it looks like it worked.

What about punt return data? Just like with the kickoff return data, 1) I've got no punt fumbles data, and 2) we'll use adjusted yards per punt return, with a ten yard bonus for TDs. I chose not to count fair catches as punt returns for zero yards, although I'm open to arguments that they should.

	PR	PR YD	 Y/PR	PR TD	AY/PR
2007	1109	10135	 9.14	 17	 9.29
2006	1216	10623	 8.74	 15	 8.86
2005	1252	10141	 8.10	  9	 8.17
2004	1217	10399	 8.54	 11	 8.64
2003	1209	11531	 9.54	 18	 9.69
2002	1151	10864	 9.44	 22	 9.63
2001	1160	11297	 9.74	 12	 9.84
2000	1142	11370	 9.96	 15	10.09
1999	1229	11497	 9.35	 16 	 9.48
1998	1171	11706	10.00	 16	10.13
1997	1222	12068	 9.88	 15	10.00
1996	1135	11398	10.04	 13	10.16
1995	1042	 9747	 9.35	 10	 9.45
1994	1074	 9605	 8.94	 16	 9.09
1993	1044	 9493	 9.09	 14	 9.23
1992	 974	 8909	 9.15	 17	 9.32
1991	 993	 8651	 8.71	  9	 8.80
1990	 996	 8397	 8.43	  8	 8.51
1989	1041	 9426	 9.05	  5	 9.10
1988	1133	 9617	 8.49	  6	 8.54
1987	1088	 9909	 9.11	 11	 9.21
1986	1145	 9820	 8.58	 14	 8.70
1985	1138	10565	 9.28	  8	 9.35
1984	1207	10390	 8.61	  8	 8.67
1983	1233	10610	 8.61	 12	 8.70
1982	 680	 5528	 8.13	  5	 8.20
1981	1220	10442	 8.56	 11	 8.65
1980	1215	10074	 8.29	  7	 8.35
1979	1215	 9299 	 7.65	  6	 7.70
1978	1339	11223	 8.38	  7	 8.43
1977	1247	11002	 8.82	 10	 8.90
1976	1266	11432	 9.03	 13	 9.13
1975	1097	10021	 9.13 	  9	 9.22
1974	1210	11842	 9.79	  9	 9.86
1973	 896	 7259	 8.10	  5	 8.16
1972	 742	 5296	 7.14	  6	 7.22
1971	 856	 6009	 7.02	  3	 7.05
1970	 979	 7202	 7.36	  9	 7.45

Those averages are somewhat all over the map, but there has been a general increase of about half an adjusted yard per decade on punt returns.

Now, on to the fun stuff. Which teams have had the best return games? I looked at each team's individual return games and compared them to the league average. I multiplied that difference by the total number of kickoff returns by the team, to come up with a "kickoff return yards above average" produced by each team. Two notes. First, I'm sure that some teams were penalized because they received a disproportionately high number of onside kickoffs or squib kicks. For now, oh well. Second, all seasons with fewer than 16 games were pro-rated to a 16-game schedule. The table below shows the 20 most valuable kickoff return teams since 1970:

	     	kr     	kryd    krtd    AY/KR	LgAvg	KR VAL
2000crd	     	86	2296	1	26.81	22.00	414
1972chi	     	52	1528	2	29.77	23.11	396
2007cle     	71	1929	2	27.45	22.77	332
1988sdg	     	60	1510	2	25.50	20.00	330
2005buf	     	75	1992	1	26.69	22.34	326
1993gnb	     	60	1483	1	24.88	19.50	323
2005htx	     	84	2173	2	26.11	22.34	316
1981was	     	67	1673	0	24.97	20.32	311
2007htx	     	74	1955	4	26.96	22.77	310
1970chi	     	56	1472	4	27.00	22.18	309
1992atl	     	64	1532	2	24.25	19.47	306
2001sdg	     	66	1716	2	26.30	21.70	304
1972clt	     	47	1321	1	28.32	23.11	280
1981oti	     	72	1722	2	24.19	20.32	279
1977nwe	     	39	1051	3	27.72	21.47	278
1971dal	     	50	1376	2	27.92	23.06	278
1993nor	     	62	1460	1	23.71	19.50	261
2003kan	     	62	1577	2	25.76	21.62	256
2006nwe	     	58	1553	1	26.95	22.58	253

And now the 20 worst:

	     	kr     	kryd    krtd    AY/KR	LgAvg	KR VAL
1975atl		66	1217	0	18.44	22.48	-305
1998sdg		70	1293	0	18.47	22.37	-273
2007chi		67	1234	2	18.72	22.77	-272
2000cin		77	1423	0	18.48	22.00	-271
2005sfo		81	1540	0	19.01	22.34	-270
2005gnb		75	1418	0	18.91	22.34	-258
2000buf		69	1262	0	18.29	22.00	-256
2001nyg		60	1062	0	17.70	21.70	-240
2007kan		67	1286	0	19.19	22.77	-240
2007mia		78	1540	0	19.74	22.77	-236
1996nyj		79	1504	0	19.04	22.02	-235
1994nyg		73	1328	0	18.19	21.31	-228
2004ram		84	1604	0	19.10	21.77	-225
1993nyj		46	 675	0	14.67	19.50	-222
1985crd		78	1421	0	18.22	21.04	-220
1994nwe		63	1123	0	17.83	21.31	-220
1998sfo		59	1108	0	18.78	22.37	-212
1993tam		58	 922	0	15.90	19.50	-209
1983gnb		79	1339	0	16.95	19.57	-207

How about the best 20 punt return teams of all time?

		pr      pryd   	prtd    AY/PR	LgAvg	 PR VAL
1996gnb		58	875	3	15.60	10.16	 316
1975oti		43	620	3	15.12	 9.22	 290
1981ram		49	676	3	14.41	 8.65	 282
2007chi		44	651	4	15.70	 9.29	 282
2000rav		45	713	2	16.29	10.09	 279
1977oti		36	539	2	15.53	 8.90	 273
1982den		21	305	2	15.48	 8.20	 272
1980kan		40	581	2	15.03	 8.35	 267
1976was		52	688	1	13.42	 9.13	 255
1976den		51	640	4	13.33	 9.13	 245
2003kan		33	542	2	17.03	 9.69	 242
1976nwe		48	628	2	13.50	 9.13	 240
1977den		58	712	1	12.45	 8.90	 235
1972gnb		25	364	2	15.36	 7.22	 233
1991was		46	610	2	13.70	 8.80	 225
1970sfo		48	550	0	11.46	 7.45	 220
2003atl		43	613	1	14.49	 9.69	 206
2002nyj		29	464	2	16.69	 9.63	 205
2002nor		45	625	1	14.11	 9.63	 202

For those wondering, Hester's 2006 Bears rank 22nd on the list, at +194, just missing the cut. Here's the 20 worst punt return games:

		pr      pryd   	prtd    AY/PR	LgAvg	 PR VAL
2002gnb		46	191	0	4.15	 9.63	-252
1978cin		59	264	0	4.47	 8.43	-234
1974chi		44	248	0	5.64	 9.86	-212
2006car		49	225	0	4.59	 8.86	-209
1970chi		57	246	0	4.32	 7.45	-204
1976nyg		41	197	0	4.80	 9.13	-203
1975cin		48	267	0	5.56	 9.22	-200
1977min		58	346	0	5.97	 8.90	-195
2000buf		38	190	0	5.00	10.09	-193
1992nor		45	231	0	5.13	 9.32	-188
1975min		36	168	0	4.67	 9.22	-187
1976atl		60	385	0	6.42	 9.13	-186
1974clt		42	253	0	6.02	 9.86	-184
1970was		27	45	0	1.67	 7.45	-178
1978min		49	239	0	4.88	 8.43	-174
2004oti		40	173	0	4.33	 8.64	-172
2000sdg		44	272	0	6.18	10.09	-172
1976cin		54	343	0	6.35	 9.13	-172
1982buf		26	119	0	4.58	 8.20	-168
1994oti		50	281	1	5.82	 9.09	-164

We can also combine the two lists to give us the best return teams of all time. Careful readers will have noticed that the 2003 Chiefs ranked in the top 20 in both punt return value added and kick return value added. Not surprisingly, then, they rank first in total return value added.

       		KR VAL	PR VAL	Ret Val
2003kan		256	242	499
2007cle		332	136	469
2002nor		249	202	451
1993nor		261	186	447
1981was		311	103	415
1985ram		246	156	401
1975rai		215	175	390
2005buf		326	 50	377
1994sdg		207	168	374
1972chi		396	-28	368
2002nyj		159	205	364
1977oti		 89	273	362
2006nwe		253	103	356
1976nwe		114	240	354
1994was		172	181	353
1976den		101	245	345
1988sdg		330	 15	345
1999cin		242	 98	340
2000oti		193	146	339

And the worst 20?

       		KR VAL	PR VAL	Ret Val
2000buf		-256	-193	-449
2006car		-200	-209	-409
1975atl		-305	- 85	-390
1996nyj		-235	-145	-381
1977min		-151	-195	-346
2002gnb		- 93	-252	-345
2004ram		-225	-116	-341
1978nyg		-204	-131	-335
2004oti		-162	-172	-334
2000cin		-271	- 57	-328
1970was		-148	-178	-327
2001nyg		-240	- 87	-327
2007kan		-240	- 79	-319
1982tam		-206	-110	-316
1978cin		- 79	-234	-312
1976nyg		-106	-203	-309
1994oti		-141	-164	-305
1987phi		-184	-119	-303
1986tam		-183	-116	-299
1978min		-121	-174	-296

Finally, you might notice that Cleveland's 2007 team ranks really high. The Browns happened to have the same kick and punt returner last year, and his name was Josh Cribbs. He averaged 13.83 AY/PR and 31.00 AY/KR, thereby adding an astounding 622 return yards over average last year. (That's higher than the Cle 2007 score, because the Browns had thirteen ineffective kickoff returns by other players.) That season is the Single Greatest Return Season since 1970, and probably of all time.

On tap for tomorrow:

  • The top single season individual returners of all time.
  • The top individual returners of all time, measured by career.

On tap for Wednesday:

  • How Josh Cribbs' 2007 season ranks relative to non-return men
  • How consistent are returners, or return games, from year to year?

This entry was posted on Monday, June 9th, 2008 at 7:35 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.