There seems to be no issue debated more among Redskins fans and media, than the status of Brandon Banks in light of the new kickoff rules. Now I know it is a sensitive issue for fans, and I'm really not trying to add fuel to the fire, but rather present the facts and let them speak for themselves.
Now in an effort of full disclosure, I will say that I have been on both sides of the Brandon Banks camp. Last season I was a major supporter for Banks to be on the team and given a chance to see if he can play in this league. On the flip side, I've been among the loudest voices questioning whether or not he has a spot this year. What's changed, you might ask? Well a lot actually. While Banks showed extremely well as a return man last year, he also failed to do much of anything as an offensive weapon. While last year he was fighting with Roydell Williams, Joey Galloway, Bobby Wade and a host of other retread receivers for a roster spot, this year he is competing against three rookies and a much improved Terrence Austin. Finally, with the new kickoff rule, Banks's value to the team is going to be even less than it was last season.
Now I'm going to focus on the impact of the kickoff rule as well as looking at how Banks fits in to this roster. As a companion piece to this I wrote a similarly themed article for my own blog. While there is some overlap, my other piece focuses a bit more on the history from when the last time the NFL kickoffs were from the 35, and the effect it had on Brian Mitchell. The focus here will be more on stats and comparing the Redskins situation with others like it around the league. Finally I wanted to say ahead of time that I realize a lot of the points that I'm offering counterpoints to are from comments, posts and articles, some of which have been written by fans and bloggers on this site. I'm not 'calling anyone out' or trying to 'knock anyone's opinion', rather I just want to show the other side to the story.
Impact Of The New Kickoff Rule:
Let's knock the big one out of the park right now. The new kickoff rule will without a doubt have a pretty significant impact on return men this year. Through three weeks in the preseason we have seen a staggering 40.7% (167 of 412 kickoffs) go for touchbacks. That is up from 16.4 % of kicks that went for touchbacks last season. That is essentially a 150% increase in touchbacks through three preseason games. And even that might be low balling the number once the regular season hits.
Three major factors could make the percentage of touchbacks even higher once the regular season kicks off. First we have seen return men (in hopes of making the team) take the ball out four to nine yards deep in the end zone. Although that will still occur somewhat during the regular season, it is likely that the green light won't be given nearly as much as when the games count. Second, teams have admitted to kicking the ball short in an effort to work on their coverage teams some this preseason. During the regular season, teams will likely focus more on kicking it deep and forcing an automatic 80 yard field. Finally, we have seen a number of teams use 2nd string kickers, who won't be on the roster by the time the regular season comes around. Now it is hard to say for sure what the overall impact will be, but it is a fairly safe assumption that the touchback rate is probably a little low.
So what does that mean in terms of a season though? Well if we just round it down and say there will be a 40% touchback rate (which as I said could be quite low) that means that if we apply that percentage to last year's kickoff total of 2,539 we will have over 1,015 touchbacks. If you break that up among the 32 teams that is an average of roughly 32 kicks will result in a touchback. Unfortunately kickoffs are based on the number of scores you give up so the Redskins are going to have even more kickoffs than most teams, and consequently have even a higher number of touchbacks. For instance last season the Redskins had 84 kickoffs that could have been returned, which using the 40% mark would result in 34 touchbacks. Now last season the Redskins breakdown of kick returns were,11 touchbacks and 73 were returned* (more on this in a bit). While that was below the league average it was still 13.1%. Yes there is a 3.3% gap between the Redskins number and the league average, but if anything the new rule change will likely shrink that number instead grow. Maybe last year the Redskins did feel more bold about taking some kicks out of the end zone, but that was when the kicks might be one to three yards deep. Now those former 'risky' kicks will be six to eight yards deep.
Now up above I said that the Redskins had 73 actual returns. Unfortunately that number is misleading as it includes any onside kicks that are recovered, as well as squib and high kicks to the up back. So of those 73 returns, only about 60 of them were actual kick returns. Which means that if there are between 30-34 touchbacks and another 10+ specialty kicks, the Redskins might at best get 40 actual kickoff returns next season (even if he is healthy Banks might not get all of them). And of those that are actually returned, the return team is at a disadvantage because they are getting them 5 yards back. In the past we've seen the average kick return yardage fall between 2-4 yards per return, when the NFL has kicked off from the 35.
Brandon Banks Is A Threat To Score Every Time He Touches The Ball:
Yes there is no doubt that Brandon Banks is an electric player, but is he going to be this scoring threat that people really believe? Last year there were over 2,100 non-touchback kickoffs. If you take away another 300 specialty kicks, you end up with about 1,800 actual kick returns (the actual number is probably slightly more). Of those 1,800 kick returns, just 23 went for touchdowns. That is roughly 1.4% of kickoff returns that go for scores. And while Banks might be more likely than most kick returners, he is far from guaranteed to take one to the house, especially with the new kickoff rules. Historically in the past when kickoffs have been from the 35 yard line, there have been on average between 6-10 returns for a TD, so your chances for a score will probably be under 1%. As for punt returns the percentage isn't much better as the league scored just 13 TD's on 1,149 returns, for a 1.1% scoring rate.
Banks might be an electric player, but he really isn't a true 'scoring threat', as the numbers simply aren't in his favor. Other return men such as Niles Paul and Terrence Austin, will be capable of breaking off big returns or one for a TD. Sure they might not be as good as Banks, but in the preseason we've seen both return men have a couple good punt and kickoff returns.
Why Is Brandon Banks Given Special Treatment?:
Every team is facing this return issue this season, but it seems like Redskins fans are the most concerned about their guy Banks not making the final roster. Now the fact is that most return men have at least some utility role that help ensures a roster spot so not everyone is on the 'bubble', but with Banks people are desperate to hang on to him.
I get that returns are flashy, but in all honesty the most important thing in the return game to measure a team's overall success, is not total yards, yards per return or touchdowns. Instead it is the lack of returns, which means that your defense is preventing points being scored. Just take a look at playoff teams from last year and you have some like the Bears, Falcons and Jets with elite return men, but you also have others like the Packers, Eagles and Chiefs with among the games worst returners. What is consistent among playoff teams is preventing returns. Of the 12 playoff teams last year, just one (the Colts) finished in the top half of the league in number of returns last year. So while top return games did help the Jets and the Bears succeed last year, having a top ten return team (in terms of average) didn't make the Lions, Cardinals or Broncos any more likely to contend.
Now with the new return rules that is even more true than before. Take for instance the New England Patriots and Brandon Tate. Tate was a 2nd year man out of UNC, who established himself as New England's kickoff returner last year, and looked pretty good in the process. He ended up with a 25.8 yards per return average, and had a pair of touchdowns. He also contributed as an offensive weapon with 24 receptions with 18.0 ypc, and five carries for over 60 yards. He is the very definition of an explosive weapon, but now appears out of a job in New England.
Now this is not to suggest that Tate is some great wide receiver, as he is more of a deep threat only type of guy. But here is a guy who out produced Banks in yards per return, and actually proved himself as a decent backup offensive weapon, instead of just the potential to be that weapon for someone like Banks. Tate also has the size and utility to help on other special teams, but with the new kickoff rule it wasn't enough for the Patriots. Instead for their final three receiver spots they are likely to go with Matt Slater, Julian Edelman, and Taylor Price. None of whom produced as much as Tate has.
Now Banks does have the added role of being the punt returner, but is that enough compared to Tate's ability to be a deep threat and a more than passable depth receiver? Yet New England fans are barely batting an eye watching a solid all-around player for them last season get cut.
I think as a fan base we want to like Brandon Banks because he did excite us last season, but guess what, that doesn't mean Niles Paul and Terrence Austin can't excite us this year. And both of those players have some serious upside to be starters/significant offensive contributors down the line. With the impact of the new rules on the return game this year, it makes it really hard to keep a pure return specialist, given the limited impact it will have on the team. Essentially the difference between Banks and Austin/Paul might be a yard or two per return this season (at most, in fact it could even be a dead heat), which amounts to 80-160 yards total (and again could be less). Is that enough to justify hurting the Redskins long term potential, and even short term depth for a few extra return yards? I think the answer is no, and while it will be a tough loss from a fan standpoint, it probably will be a gain from a team potential standpoint.
Steve Shoup has been a Redskins fan his entire life and dreams of the day they get back to the glory days of his youth. In addition to his regular piece on Hogs Haven, you can find his daily writings at Fanspeak.com.