From the drawers of the Top Secret Fyles:
One of pro football’s most exciting plays is going by the way of the dinosaur. It seems hard to believe, but it’s true.
Over the past 10 seasons, NFL kickoff returns have sorely been reduced, thanks mostly to safety concerns for the players and that’s understandable.
Through first month of the 2019 NFL season, only one kickoff has returned for a touchdown, a 100-yarder by the Lions’ Jamal Agnew against the Eagles during the first quarter in a Sept. 22 game.
About three of four kickoffs result in touchbacks in today’s era. In the season’s first four weeks, only 27.9% of kickoffs have been returned compared to 32.2% in 2018 and a stark contrast of 76.4% in 2009 over the same span.
The days of the great returners of Travis Williams, Brian Mitchell, Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester are sadly in the past.
In 14 seasons, Mitchell amassed 14,014 yards in kickoff returns while adding another 4,999 yards in punt returns, both NFL records.
The Packers’ Williams and the Bears’ Cecil Turner share the NFL single-season record of four kickoff returns for a touchdown in 1967 and 1970, respectively.
Back in those days, Cowboys starting wide receivers Lance Rentzel and Bob Hayes were used to return kickoffs and punts. Now, teams utilize backup receivers and defensive backs in deep formations, nixing possible injuries to key starters.
Rule changes have been instrumental in the waning of kickoff returns.
In 2011, kickoffs were moved up from the 30-yard line to the 35, and five years later, the ball was placed on the 25-yard line instead of the 20 on touchbacks, giving the offense five “free” yards for NOT returning a kickoff. The league later banned the kickoff return team’s formation of blocking wedges, and players on the kickoff team no longer can get a running start. These are all designed to reduce violent collisions on returns, and that’s good.
The now-defunct Alliance of American Football League, which lasted only eight weeks in the spring, banned kickoffs and onside kicks.
But, there may be a ray of hope later in the NFL. Kickers could lose some zip on the ball during the long season, weather no doubt will deteriorate, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, and stiff winds also could be a factor, increasing chances for more returns.
n Richie Rich’s Top 10 rankings in the NFL: 1. Patriots; 2. Chiefs; 3. 49ers; 4. Bills; 5. Saints; 6. Seahawks; 7. Packers; 8. Lions; 9. Rams; 10. Ravens.
Times sports copy editor Richard Fyle can be reached at email@example.com