September 22, 2017

Return of the Returner: Have we entered a new golden age?

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

It’s not your imagination. It’s not just a one team or a one weekend thing.

The numbers are up and there is a chance that we have entered another golden age of the returner in the CFL. If the return game is indeed catching a wave, there are many reasons as to why and plenty of evidence, – both anecdotal and statistical – to suggest the age of the big special teams play has, well, returned.

Toronto’s Martese Jackson and Ottawa’s Diontae Spencer both raced back missed field goals for touchdowns in Week 13, while the league’s leading return man, Calgary’s Roy Finch, hauled back six punts for 174 yards, for an eye-popping 29-yard average. Finch didn’t get to the end zone like Jackson and Spencer, but he has done it three times in 2017.

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It was a heck of a weekend and the trending numbers suggest we can expect more of that kind of thing.

According to statistics accrued by CFL Head Statistician Steve Daniel, the average punt return in 2017 stands at 11.0 yards, just off the 2016 season average of 11.3. Those are the two highest average punt return numbers in league history, rising steadily from an average of 8.0 in 2013.

The average kick off return this season measures 21.9 yards through 53 games. That’s the highest in league history.

There have been seven punt return TDs so far in 2017, there were eight in 2016 but only four in 2013.

Things have been trending upward, generally, for a number of seasons now, but 2017 seems to have supercharged the trend.

What gives?

Part of the reason may very well be a change enacted in 2015, when the CFL adjusted its coverage rules, restricting linemen on the kick team from heading downfield until the ball had been punted. The hope was, in part, that this would allow for a little more room to set up returns.

There’s more to it than that, though.

According to some of the men who currently do the returning, one who used to and one of the league’s top coordinators, it comes down to talent, the evolution of scheme and the plain old notion off the ebb and flow of the game.

THE CFL IS BLESSED WITH A RICH DEPTH OF RETURN TALENT

 

“Our league is full of dynamic guys,” said Michael Clemons, pro football’s all-time yardage leader, with more than 12,000 of those yards coming on returns. “When you match the dynamic player with the right situation, the right system, the right group of guys around him.…”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“There definitely is some very good returners in this league,” said Stampeders’ Special Teams Coordinator, Mark Kilam, now in his thirteenth season as a Calgary coach, eighth heading up the teams. He has firsthand knowledge of Finch, who leads the league in both punt return average
(18.0) and kick return average (26.2).

Kilam, whom Finch calls “a genius,” believes what makes his top returner so special is more than just his elusive abilities and speed. It’s an attitude.

“Roy is a guy who makes the other players around him better,” said Kilam. “He gives a belief to the other eleven guys on the field that they can change the game. They work that much harder, they work that much better together because they know that they can have an impact on the game every time he touches the ball.”

For his part, Finch is happy if you’d like to call him the pied piper of the CFL returners’ fraternity but it’s not the kind of accolade he actively seeks. He feels his own drive and determination is enough. If it’s not, being pushed by the exploits of the likes of Jackson, Spencer, BC’s Chris Rainey, Montreal’s Stefan Logan, Winnipeg’s Ryan Lankford, and Saskatchewan’s Duron Carter, helps. “Of course,” he said, matter of factly.

“I really like (both) of those returners,” Finch said of Jackson and Spencer. They aren’t huge guys (Jackson is 5’6″, Spencer is 5’8″ and Finch, by the way, is 5’7″). They have the speed, they have the God-given talent. They have the heart and the work ethic to do better.”

Rainey, second in kick return yards (1,058 to Lankford’s 1,094) is appreciative of the new blood in the league – to a point. As energetic as he is on the field, Rainey is that way over the phone too, and he let’s you know that the adventures of other returners across the league get his juices flowing.

“I’ll be pissed,” he said, lightheartedly, when asked how he reacts to seeing another returner light it up. “Man, Martese Jackson, he ain’t even been here the whole year and he’s startin’ to tear it up! I’m like, what the hell?”

Rainey remains a big threat in 2017, although he is chagrined that his punt return totals are down a bunch (13.9 yard average in 2016, 8.1 this season). He has a cautionary tale for guys like Finch, Jackson and Spencer when it comes to that.

“They’re starting to notice the other guys now,” he said with a chuckle, before admitting that he is frustrated by the adjustments that have been made against him. Instead of punting deep, Rainey maintains, teams are now punting shorter, but higher.

“I’m waiting forever for the punt to come down so when I catch it there’s about twenty people in my face,” he said. “It’s hard.”

“I don’t know why people are still giving Finch that much space,” he added.

If opponents adjust the way they defend the Calgary return game, it’ll be up to Kilam to help spring Finch anyway.

COORDINATORS ARE EARNING THEIR MONEY

Special teams coordinator Paul Boudreau has helped whip up some interesting special teams plays this season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

“As wonderful and dynamic as these returners are, the fact is, if they didn’t have blocking, they’d rarely make a ten-yard return,” said Clemons, who had deftly swung the conversation away from the return men to those who plan the schemes and those who open the lanes.

When it comes to springing a return, Clemons said, “it is the passion of the guys who design and stay up to try to figure this out and the core competencies of the guys who are on the field working so hard for them,” that must come together.

Kilam would be one of the coordinators who is scheming well. As the 2016 season progressed, Kilam’s return team started to spring Finch a little more and a little more as the year wore on. In 2017, they’ve hit a geyser of return yards.

“He’s a smart coach,” said Finch, pointing to Kilam’s fluid thinking as a key. “He makes great adjustments, not only during the practice week, he makes great adjustments during the game.”

Known as one of the best special teams coordinators in the league, Kilam is well aware that his hard work, while at times solitary in day-to-day nature, is not at all solitary in brotherhood. He has praise for others across the league.

“There’s some coordinators that are scheming well,” he said. “It’s a high level of quality of special teams play across the league right now.” When asked about the success Lankford is having as a kick returner in Winnipeg, Kilam notes that the Blue Bombers organization has special teams coursing through its veins.

“Obviously, the guys in Winnipeg do a great job drawing the schemes up,” he said, referring to coordinator Paul Boudreau and, likely, Mike O’Shea, a noted special teams aficionado who designed schemes for the Argos before becoming the Bombers’ Head Coach. “Their whole team, the cornerstone is built on special teams from, basically, the president of the club (Wade Miller, a star special-teamer in his playing days) down.”

Finch agrees with the notion that the success of the return game – the success he is currently enjoying – starts not with the individual who settles under the ball, but rather with an all-in attitude on schemes.

“It starts with the unit. It starts with everybody coming together and understanding what the coaches are wanting to get done,” Finch said. “Having a goal and pressing and working towards it.”

WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

If it can be said that most things in life are cyclical, perhaps the return game in football is just part of that reality. If the coverage side started to take over five or six seasons ago, that may have been for a number of reasons, some of which were powered by happenstance as well as, say, personnel decisions.

“You see different trends in the return game,” said Kilam, agreeing that special teams can be as changeable as offence and defence. “You see different things working.”

“It’s just cyclical,” said Clemons. “Where you kick the ball, how you kick the ball. Whether you’re talking about directional kicking or making sure we get hang time, those things have some bearing on it as well.”

And, a little fortune can come into it too. “It’s getting the collection of the right people together,” said Clemons, addressing the notion of a little serendipity coming into play. The right people converging on a team at the right time.

“There’s a good wave of returners in this league,” added Kilam. “There’s a good wave of role players blocking and working for those guys. Definitely on the upswing as far as return game in the CFL.”

The right talent, the right scheme, the right personnel. The right time.

Seems we’ve got it all when it comes to the burgeoning CFL return game.

KILAM AND CLEMONS SIZE UP THE RETURNERS

Both Kilam and Clemons were asked about a few selected returners in today’s CFL. Here are their comments:

ROY FINCH | Calgary Stampeders

“Wow,” said Clemons. “WOW,” he repeated. “I really think of him as the leader of the pack right now. He is jaw-dropping, he truly is. He is, I think, the most complete returner in our game today.”

DIONTAE SPENCER | Ottawa REDBLACKS & MARTESE JACKSON | Toronto Argonauts

“Both those guys can ROLL,” said Kilam. “Their biggest strength is they’re just flat out fast. The more space those guys have to deal with, the better they are.”

Said Clemons of Jackson: “His upside is immeasurable because he’s really just getting the hang of it.”

Said Clemons of Spencer: “Diontae, I believe, is the best (overall) football player of the bunch. “He’s got great intuition. He does just about everything well. Wherever you put him on the field, he’ll figure out how to thrive.”

CHRIS RAINEY | BC Lions

“He is excitement in a bottle,” said Clemons. “There’s no telling where he’ll go, what he’ll do. He’s got that element of the unknown, if you will. He’s a little bit of everything. I’d call him the wild card.”

RYAN LANKFORD | Winnipeg Blue Bombers

“He looks like a hundred metre sprinter, that’s what he looks like,” said Kilam. “He’s a long, lean athlete. Said Clemons: “The kid in Winnipeg is very interesting. He’s the silent but deadly. He’s the guy we don’t think about as much.”

STEFAN LOGAN | Montreal Alouettes

“I would tend to call him the grandfather but I think that may be a little too docile for him,” said Clemons. “Maybe we should call him the godfather. It looks so effortless with him. He runs so smooth.”

DURON CARTER | Saskatchewan Roughriders

“He’s photogenic,” laughed Clemons, noting Carter’s love of the limelight. “When something needs to happen that’s when he goes back (to return).”