SOUTH HILLS – The names, oh the names. Many of them will make Steelers fans chuckle in amusement.
If they don’t make them shudder in disgust.
During Mike Tomlin’s first 10 seasons as coach, the Steelers cycled though 28 different kick returners (as in, legitimate options used deep to return kicks such as receivers, running backs and defensive backs – not “up men” who recorded an official statistical return… if we counted them, the number bloats further and begins to include the likes of Cameron Heyward and Matt Spaeth).
Anyway, of these 28 men, they range from Stefan Logan’s 55 returns (all during the 2009 season) all the way down to the one kick returned each by the likes of Jordan Todman, Jerricho Cotchery and Tyrone Carter.
In between are such forgettable names as Willie Reid (six kicks returned Tomlin’s debut 2007 season), Najeh Davenport (17 combined in ’07 and ’08), Mewelde Moore (18 over a four-year span), Chris Rainey (39 in 2012), Dri Archer (23 in his 20 NFL games between 2014-15) and Justin Gilbert (three last regular season, plus three more – including one near-disastrous one – in the playoffs).
There’s been a pair of lamentable Jones’ (Felix had 23 in 2013; Jacoby nine fumble-filled tries two years later), a Canadian Football League lifer (Logan), a former Pro Bowl returner (three years after being so honored as a Falcon, Allen Rossum had 38 Steelers returns in 2007) and a couple of future Pro Bowl receivers (Antonio Brown – 46 kicks returned, most during his first two seasons 2010-11 – and Emmanuel Sanders – 41 returns from 2010-13).
For the most part, none have worked.
The Steelers have one kickoff return for a touchdown since Sept. 23, 2007, when Rossum took one to the proverbial house in a 37-16 win against San Francisco. The lone kickoff-return touchdown to come since then was on a trick play: a reverse from Moore on a handoff to Brown for 89 yards in a win at Tennessee on Sept. 19, 2010.
So the Steelers have gone 157 games without one of their kick returners taking a kick back for a touchdown on their own – and 110 games doing so by any means.
Even in today’s game when kickoffs are de-emphasized and most result in touchbacks, that’s not good. (For comparison’s sake, opponents have six kickoff returns against the Steelers in the Tomlin era).
When it comes to average return yards, the Steelers’ picture isn’t as bleak – but it’s not good, either. They’ve been below average over the decade and haven’t ranked better than eighth in the NFL during any season under Tomlin. Four times, they’ve been in the bottom quartile, and the league rankings over the past four seasons are: 21st, 26th, 14th, 17th.
It hasn’t been without trying, either. Tomlin quickly established his love for prioritizing special teams when he spent two draft picks (using one to trade up) in selecting a punter during his first draft (Daniel Sepulveda, who incidentally set the trend for Tomlin’s similar punting woes).
A few months later and eight days before coaching his first game, Tomlin’s Steelers traded for Rossum – another early indication he was enamored with specialists. Rossum was OK (he did have that touchdown) – but his 23.3 average was fourth-worst in the league among players who had at least as many returns as him.
Rossum also was the first indication that Tomlin was willing to devote a roster spot to a player who is almost exclusively a returner. But that it didn’t work out so well (Rossum was cut the following offseason) was a harbinger of things to come for similar one-trick-pony, return-only specialists the Steelers would employ. Think Logan (lasted just one season), Rainey (lasted just one season, when he had all the relevant returns and only 40 offensive touches) and Jacoby Jones (I don’t even want to get into that one). All flamed out quickly.
As bad as Archer was offensively (a third-round pick who gained 63 yards from scrimmage in two seasons), he might have tanked as a returner even moreso (nine of 23 kick returns went for fewer than 20 yards, just one went longer than 30) – if that can be even believed and is possible.
This is all relevant today, of course, because the Steelers signed Knile Davis. While purportedly perhaps their backup running back, Davis’ true value might be seen as a kickoff returner. Even though he was cut twice last season, Davis has a 26.8 yards/attempt career average – that would have ranked fourth in the NFL last season – and three kick return touchdowns (two regular-season, one in the playoffs).
That’s promising. Maybe Tomlin’s kick curse will be broken.
Judging by past history, though, I wouldn’t bet on it.
MANY UNHAPPY RETURNS
LIST OF STEELERS WHO HAVE RETURNED DEEP KICKOFFS SINCE 2007 (in reverse chronological order of last kick returned, with number regular-season returns listed):
Fitzgerald Toussaint (13)
Sammie Coates (6)
Cobi Hamilton (5)
Justin Gilbert (3)
Antonio Brown (46)
Jacoby Jones (9)
Dri Archer (23)
Markus Wheaton (27)
Jordan Todman (1)
LeGarrette Blount (5)
Felix Jones (23)
Emmanuel Sanders (41)
Jonathan Dwyer (4)
LaRod Stephens-Howling (1)
Chris Rainey (39)
Jerricho Cotchery (1)
Mewelde Moore (18)
Isaac Redman (5)
Stefan Logan (55)
Joe Burnett (3)
Carey Davis (7)
Rashard Mendenhall (7)
Mike Wallace (1)
Gary Russel (16)
Najeh Davenport (17)
Tyrone Carter (1)
Allen Rossum (38)
Willie Reid (6)