Special teams are often forgotten when it comes to discussing football. Despite having a significant impact in terms of field position and scoring in general, most ignore it or in some cases, want to completely eliminate it.
Although the game would be safer without special teams, it's hard to ignore the element of surprise it brings to a game and the captivating image of a group of players working together as a cohesive unit.
After all, that's what football is all about.
The 2012 regular season has witnessed 14 combined kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns through 11 weeks, which is only one short of last year's total of 15 but 10 short from the 2010 season, which was the last before the change from the 30-yard line to the 35 on kickoffs was made. It appears that return yardage has also fallen dramatically since the change:
Although the number of kickoffs rose slightly last year – to 2,572 from 2,539 in 2010 – returns fell to 1,375 from 2,033. In 2010, 80.1 percent of kickoffs were returned. Last year, the percentage of kickoffs returns was 53.5 percent, the lowest in history. The average yards per kickoff return was 23.8, the highest in history (the previous high was 23.7 in 1962).
Who is the better returner?
Despite the changes, special teams touchdowns are still an exciting part of the game, and three of the league's most electric return men are the Miami Dolphins' Marcus Thigpen, Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens' Jacoby Jones.
They've scored a combined total of six touchdowns this season and each was very impressive. A big reason why have success in returning is because they make the first defender miss, can get up the field instantly and use their blockers to their advantage.
Rookie return man Marcus Thigpen struck first of the three, returning a punt 72 yards against the Houston Texans in an opening-week loss. Unlike kick returners, punt returners have less time to catch the football and scan the field, instead having to quickly make a decision on whether they will be fair-catching it or attempting to score.
In the third quarter, Thigpen caught the ball at the 28-yard line and immediately faced a pressure decision of which direction he was going to go. He chose quickly to go to his right, where a wall of blockers was setting up a row of seal blocks toward the sideline, creating a large running lane in the middle of the field.
As he passed the first wave of defenders, two defenders closed the cushion of the running lane and nearly got to Thigpen, who squeaked by due to three blocks thrown well enough and his speed. At that point, he was well past the difficult part of the return, only having to outrun the kicker for six points.
Three weeks later against the Detroit Lions, Minnesota's Percy Harvin made a mark of his own after he scored on the opening kickoff with a dazzling 105-yard return.
Per usual, he made it look very easy, as he's one of the league's most dynamic athletes, possessing great speed, vision and agility—something I like to call "weave ability"—that enables him to get to the open field and force defenders to only see the back of his jersey as he runs away.
Upon receiving the kickoff five yards into the end zone, Harvin ran diagonally for roughly 12 yards before making a quick turn right where there was vacant real estate. The green grass was unoccupied because of the excellent blocking executed in the middle of the field. His teammates built a wall of blocks, making the choice of run direction easy for Harvin.
Another key aspect of the return would be the back-side special teams defender, who attempted to seal the edge by running to the outside. From the defenders' point of view, the ideal scenario would be to get on the outside and force Harvin back inside, where there were tacklers. Although he succeeded in forcing Harvin to the inside, his teammates did not help him out.
As a result, Harvin found a bulldozer-sized lane to run through. And one thing's for sure: when Harvin gets into the open field, there's no catching him.
Last but not least, Baltimore's Jacoby Jones scored the deciding touchdown in a 13-10 victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football in Week 11.
Unlike Thigpen and Harvin, Jones had to split two defenders shortly after catching the ball, but before he did that, he made a decision which direction he was going to run to. He chose left, where the majority of his blocks were being thrown, which was a very interesting decision; it was the opposite of what the previous two discussed returners did.
Once he got past the first defenders, he went untouched by the second level of defenders after picking up blocks by three of his teammates, two of which blocked three Steelers.
Finally, Jones turned to his right, flipping field, showcasing his vision as defenders neared him and outrunning the last line of the defense—as always, the kicker—for a touchdown.
The return yardage and touchdowns may be down from two years ago, but the excitement is still there every time a dangerous return man receives the football.
The likes of Jacoby Jones, Percy Harvin and Marcus Thigpen bring an element of surprise to the sport along with the ability to make the first defender miss, get up the field and use their blockers to spring them for a touchdown—all key traits of being an electrifying return man.