What to Expect-Return Game

You are probably expecting an article on Ray Fisher today, but I’m going to go broader.  Fisher, a corner, was brought in ostensibly to bolster the Colts’ flagging return game.  Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to track return men in the draft because they often aren’t listed that way in draft records.  Moreover, Fisher isn’t the only returner being brought in by the Colts.  We are going to have to take a wider angle.

The chart shows how the Colts return game has fared in recent years.

Returners KR rank Ave DVOA PR rank Ave DVOA
2009 Simpson K, Rushing P 18 22.2 -1.6 28 5.2 -5.8
2008 Ratliff P, Garcon/Simpson/Forsett K 28 20.8 -9 31 6 -10.2
2007 Rushing P, Rushing/Thorpe K 22 21.8 -4.7 6 11.2 7.3
2006 Wilkins 7 23.6 0.5 13 9 2.5
2005 Rhodes K, Walters P 28 19.9 -9.9 19 7.6 -10.2
2004 Rhodes K, Pyatt/Walters/David P 8 23.4 3.1 24 7.1 -1.4
2003 Pyatt/Wilkins/Walkers P, Pyatt/Wilkins/Rhodes K 5 23.6 4.4 23 7.7 -5.8
2002 Walters 24 20.5 -6.8 26 7.6 -4.3

First, note that in most years there were other players returning kicks as well.  I only listed the principles.

The results are interesting.  First, it’s easy to see that the Colts are typically below average at both phases of the return game.  Second, only twice in the past 8 seasons have they managed to have one guy who could return both punts and kick offs.  Terrance Wilkins is the only player to do both with any real skill at all, as 2006 was the one year the Colts had an above average return game across the board.

The only drafted players to return kicks were Pierre Garcon (Kickoffs, 2008) and Jason David (Punts, 2004) (note: and TJ Rushing), and neither was a return specialist.  Again, this speaks to the lack of emphasis the Colts place on the return game.  Many fans complain about that, but on average, a below average return unit only gets a yard or two less than an above average one.  Over the course of a game, we are talking about a 10-15 yard difference in field position (cumulative).  That is not very significant.

Of course, field position is one of those things that can jump up to bite you when you least expect it.  One of the hidden plays in the Super Bowl was the terrible decision by Chad Simpson to run back a kick.  With two minutes to play in the 3rd quarter, Simpson (ironically nicknamed the Human Touchback) fielded a kick four yards deep in the endzone.  Instead of kneeling, he stupidly ran out the kick, but only made the Indy 11.  That drive ended in a missed 52 yard field goal by Matt Stover.  In this particular case, 9 yards might have been the difference between a 1 point lead and the Saints ball at the 40 and a four point lead with a kick off.  That’s the killer part about special teams.  On the whole they don’t matter (except for the kickers)…right up until they do.  Of course in this case, it wasn’t a question of skill, but of judgement, so maybe the Colts just needed a smarter return man rather than a better one.

There are two factors that are unpredictable when it comes to the 2011 Colts’ special teams.  The first is the returner.  I think it’s safe to say that whoever Indy has will be better than Chad Simpson.  The Colts tried to replace him all season, but didn’t have the guy on their roster to do it.  Through UDFA signings and Ray Fisher, the Colts have addressed that part of the equation.

The second factor is injuries.  Injuries force backups into starting roles and massively deplete the special teams.  The Colts have been beset by injuries for several seasons now.  Statistically, they are due for a healthy year. The last time the Colts were healthy was 2006 when they were one of the least injured teams in football.

Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2006, but that was the only year under the Dungy Tree where they finished above average in both phases of the return game.  I don’t think either is a coincidence.

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