June 16, 2020

Breaking down the ‘Year of the Return’

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

TORONTO — It wasn’t long before the 2019 season was dubbed, ‘The Year of the Return.’

As the campaign began, we saw special teams shine week after week, as kick returners were finding lanes and showing off their speed down the field and into the end zone. We watched the likes of Janarion Grant, DeVonte Dedmon and the eventual Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, Frankie Williams, take all types of returns to the house.

CFL fans all across the country learned quickly that they couldn’t leave their seats or turn away from the TV at any point during a game because there could be an explosive return about to unfold.

In total, there were 21 kick return touchdowns last season, which was the fourth highest total of all-time and the highest since 2004 (22). These touchdowns came in the form of punt returns (nine), kickoff returns (nine) and miss field goals (three). There was also an average of one return touchdown ever 3.9 games, which is the third highest frequency in history.

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Year Games Return TDs Avg
1995 117 24 4.9
1994 108 23 4.7
2004 81 22 3.7
2019 81 21 3.9
2003 81 20 4.1

However, following the first half of the season full of exciting returns, it didn’t take long for teams to adjust their special teams coverages and figure out how to slow down them down. 18 of the 21 touchdowns happened from June through August. From September forward there were just three majors off of punt returns and not a single kickoff or missed field goal TD.

Let’s take a closer look at those return touchdowns and which players were responsible for them.

Ryan Lankford (MFG and KOR), Dedmon (PR and KOR) and Williams (PR and KOR) each scored in two different ways, while Grant had three punt return TDs. Mario Alford scored on two punt returns and the eventual Most Outstanding Player, Brandon Banks, found the end zone twice on missed field goal returns.

Banks’ two missed field goals returns last season gave him five total in his career and put him ahead of Bashir Levingston (four) for the all-time record. Banks is eighth on the all-time yardage list in missed field goal returns with 769. Henry Williams is the all-time leader with 1,646.

The nine kickoff return touchdowns, all of which were by a different player, set an all-time single season record. Those returns were taken to the house by Brandon Rutley, Lucky Whitehead, Will Likely, Marcus Thigpen, Lankford, Loucheiz Purifoy, Dedmon, Terry Williams and Frankie Williams. The next closest was in 1994 and in 2003, where there were seven in a single season. Interestingly enough, there were more kickoff return touchdowns in 2019 than there were in the four previous years combined. From 2015 to 2018 there were just eight in total.

Here are some historical notes about kick returns:

– In the data dating back to 1936, there have been 623 kick return touchdowns in 5,456 games, an average of one every 8.8 games. However, in 1975, an historic rule change would lead to a dramatic increase in punt return touchdowns, as blocking would now be allowed on punts. Dating back to 1975, there has been a return touchdown an average of one every 6.4 games. Since 1990 that number has dropped to one in every 5.5 games, making last year’s mark of 3.9 games – the lowest since 3.8 in 2010 when there were only 72 games in a season – all the more remarkable.

– Though the single season record of 24 was set in 1995, American expansion meant there were a lot more games – 117 in total compared to our usual 81 (or 72 when Ottawa was out of the league). Statistically, 2004 is the best season we’ve ever had for returns. That year there was one return every 3.7 games, including 14 PR TDs. Bashir Levingston scored on all three methods, a MFG, KOR and PR, a feat shared only with Marcus Thigpen (2010), Dominique Dorsey (2007) and Henry Williams (1990). In 2004 Levingston would account for five of 22 return TDs, setting a record that would be broken by Chris Williams in 2012 with six.

– While Henry Williams holds most major return records, his all-time kick return yards record is in peril. Two players that were active in 2019 are within striking distance — behind Williams at 7,354 yards is Stefan Logan at 6,683, followed by Chris Rainey at 6,671.