When Lucky Whitehead took the opening kickoff of the Cowboys first 2016 preseason game for a touchdown, many fans thought this was the year that the special teams unit turns it around. As it turns out, that would be the only kick return for a touchdown the Cowboys would have all season. It’s hard to replace what Dwayne Harris had given them in the return game and many people weren’t too hard on Whitehead the previous year during his rookie season. But after another season where the return game was non-existent, the Cowboys look towards making a change as they search for ways to constantly improve every aspect of the team.
Enter Ryan Switzer.
The North Carolina wide receiver burst on the scene his freshmen year with 24 punt returns for 502 yards with an average of 20.9 yards per return. He also had five returned for a touchdown. Opposing teams eventually learned that kicking to Switzer was not wise and by his senior year, he only had 16 opportunities to return punts.
I recently came across this tweet from Pro Football Focus:
This got me thinking - what kind of opportunities is Switzer going to have in Dallas?
When looking at the damage one can do in the punt return game, I looked at two important elements - opportunities and average yards allowed. Clearly, if you have a team that doesn’t allow many changes to return punts, like the Green Bay Packers had in Jacob Schum, then that will help limit the big play opportunities. Similarly, if their special teams unit doesn’t give up many yards, then that’s also a tough situation to be in for a punt returner.
Taking those two factors into account, I came up with an average ranking for each team in the league. Here are the teams that are most susceptible in the punting game (most of the stats are courtesy of ESPN.com):
The Cowboys will have six games against teams in the bottom half against the punt return, including three of the worst eight teams.
Los Angeles Chargers - while their special teams unit is middle of the road at containing returners, they give up the third most chances in the league to return punts.
Oakland Raiders - contrast to the Chargers, the Raiders punter is much better limiting opportunities, but once teams get them, they take full advantage. The Raiders are the third worst at average yards allowed per punt.
Atlanta Falcons - the Falcons aren’t atrocious at any one specific thing, but they’re really bad collectively. In a game that many expect to be a shootout, a punt return for a touchdown could be a difference maker.
The Cowboys will also face several teams that are stronger against punt returns:
Los Angeles Rams - the Cowboys should be able to win the offense/defense battle against the Rams to where special teams won’t come into play. And it’s a good thing for that. The Rams punting team does not let their opponents go very far on returns as they were top in the league in this category last year.
Green Bay Packers - as mentioned about, Jacob Schum is the best in the league in not allowing opponents to get a chance to return his punts. That’s not something many of us think about as we are just glad to see the Packers punter come onto the field, but in a close game where shifting field position could help set their team up for a game winning field goal - it matters.
These are just two factors in the punting game. How much do they actually mean? Well, there were three players last season who were tied for the lead in punt return touchdowns - Tyreek Hill (Kansas City Chiefs), Marcus Sherels (Minnesota Vikings), and Andre Roberts (Arizona Cardinals). They each had two. Here is a breakdown of their punt return TDs:
Tyreek Hill - his punt return touchdowns came against the Raiders and the Chargers. Both these teams are mentioned above as two of the best chances for the Cowboys this season.
Marcus Sherels - his punt return touchdowns came against the Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers, which are the worst punt defending teams on my ranking board. Both these teams are terrible at limiting opportunities as well as yards.
So there is some merit to these statistics as they pertain to the likeliness of a punt returner taking it to the house.
Punt returns for touchdowns are more rare than people realize. As mentioned above, two TDs was enough to lead the league. The Cowboys offense will be a big problem for opposing defenses so teams will need to win the special teams battle against Dallas. That means they will have to challenge Switzer until he gives them reason not to. Two punt return touchdowns is not unthinkable.
His best chance will come against the Chargers or Raiders. Both these games are on national television with the Chargers game on Thanksgiving and the Raiders on Sunday Night Football. Both are also later in the year when Switzer will have worked himself more into the Cowboys game plan. He’s taking one to the house against them.
And another comes against the Washington Redskins. Not only will Switzer have two games against the Redskins, but the Skins punter Tress Way is fourth worst when it comes to allowing punt returning opportunities. Poor guy should just kick it out of bounds so he doesn’t get hurt.
Maybe he should take some tips from the wood lay’n Chris Jones.
One of the Redskins games is also a Thursday Night game when Washington will be wear those dreadful all-yellow color rush jerseys. This should help Switzer see them better as he weaves in and out of traffic.
How many punt return touchdowns do you think Switzer will have and which teams do you think he gets them against?