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The Answer Man, Series 8, Volume 1

Posted Feb 1, 2012

The Answer Man's 2012 debut includes lengthy musings on such topics as punt-downing momentum, draft eligibility in different sports, Bucs in the NFL record book and a new points-per-play stat


As you may have seen a few weeks ago when I popped up here on Buccaneers.com to solicit a new round of questions, I, the Buccaneers Answer Man, am back.

 

I know plenty of you noticed this because my e-mail inbox filled up rapidly.  Those of you who are familiar with my work here on the Bucs’ official site know what to expect – over the next six or seven months I’ll be filing regular columns, trying to answer your queries in a satisfying manner and occasionally wandering off into rambling tangents. You know I’ll do my best to bring my superhuman question-answering powers to bear.

 

Beyond that, though, what do you really know of me?

 

Like many modern superheroes, I’m equipped with a mysterious background, only revealed to the reader in shadowy bits, here and there along the way.  You know I can fly; it’s right up there in the picture.  (The actual relevance of this particular power to my job has yet to be explained, it’s true.)  You know from my video segments last year that I’m steadfastly reclusive, but that I can summon Buccaneer trivia to my forebrain in a matter of seconds, and you know I have ultra-secret contacts within the organization and the NFL to help me when the answer doesn’t come as easily. 

 

Well, as we begin another offseason of give-and-take, it’s time for another reveal, and it is this: Among the Answer Man’s power is an extraordinarily thick skin.  You simply cannot wound me with your words.

 

This is coming in handy right about now, because mixed in with a lot of great questions in my current e-mail inbox is a whole lotta good old-fashioned venting.  If e-mail inboxes could be set on fire like a real sack of mail, mine would be blazing.

 

And listen, that’s okay.  Feel free to vent.  Like I said, it won’t hurt me.  Nobody is happy after an unsuccessful season.  And nobody wants to win more than the people here at One Buccaneer Place.  Here, we’ve turned the page and our focusing on what we believe will be a very successful 2012 campaign.  We have our new head coach, Greg Schiano, and he’s building his staff and planning for a crucial offseason.  The player personnel department is hard at work preparing for another important draft.  There are already players in the building, getting healthy again and watching tape on their own.  Just today I saw promising defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Da’Quan Bowers in one of the meeting rooms with the tape machine.  (The Buccaneers.com video crew saw them, too; I think you’ll be able to hear from both guys in an Insider video later today.)

 

The NFL offseason is a time of optimism in 32 cities, and here at One Buc I think we’ve got a lot of reasons to feel that way.  But right now, you may still want to vent.  Here, I’ll even give you some space in the intro to do it.

 

Let’s start with Mike of Santa Clara, California.  He says:

I hardly doubt you can answer this but why does it seem… /snip. Whoa, got to stop you there, Mike.

 

Well, maybe this isn’t such a great idea. This is a family column.  I re-read the rest of Mike’s e-mail and decided my editors just might have a problem with it.  So, uh, let’s go with Carl of Hamburg, Pennsylvania instead.  Carl’s been a fan since ’76 and he actually manages to stay very civil throughout his missive.  He even says at the end that it was a chance “to vent.”

 

Carl:

Why can’t we… (edit)… Thanks for the time and opportunity to vent and ask my questions.

 

Okay, this isn’t really working out.  At the last second, I felt like I had to chop that one, too. Carl was mostly nice, like I said, but maybe it’s best that I alone absorb his frustration with my superpowers, sparing the rest of you.  At least he didn’t yell like:

 

John of Tampa Bay, Florida (I supposed he lives on a boat):

Y R THE BUCCANEERS …. (edit) …. AND WIN!

 

Yeah, I chopped out a lot of that one, and it was all capitalized (except, weirdly, one word: “defensive”).  John got a true rant off his chest, and I read every word.  Hopefully, that’s enough.

 

Seriously, I understand.  We all do.  It will take some time – and some winning – to erase the frustration of a tough season.  So yell at me all you want in the inbox, I can take it.  I’m genetically hard-wired to survive it!

 

Meanwhile, plenty of you were still in the spirit of the old Answer Man give-and-take, and the inbox was as full of entertaining questions as always.  I particularly like the one I’ve labeled “#1” a little farther below, but before we get to that I have to take care of one little bit of housekeeping.

 

See, when the Answer Man makes a mistake, big or small, he owns up to it.  A very gentle reader/editor named Russ Randolph of Valencia, California wrote in to point out a couple from my most recent column, and I have to admit that he’s right in both cases.  So I’m printing the corrections right up top instead of quietly slipping them in at the bottom of the page.  Take it away, Russ:

 

Hello again Answer Man.  As I am a life-long Bucs fan (dating all the way back to '76) as well as a huge trivia geek, I continue to enjoy reading your columns. I respectfully have two corrections to your most current column. First, while Steve Young was on the 49ers team that won Super Bowl XXIV, Joe Montana was still the starting quarterback that year. And secondly, the former tight end for the Bucs with the nickname of "Obee" was actually Jim Obradovich, not Ed. Thanks again for the very entertaining and informative columns, I look forward to reading many more in the months to come.

 

Oh man, what really stings about that is that those were just reprints of questions and answers from previous Answer Man columns, some dating back several years.  That means I’ve gone uncorrected for a long time.  Where were you in 2006, Russ.  Where…were…you…in…2006!!!

 

Anyway, as I said, he’s right on both counts.  I honestly can’t believe I messed that up.  Montana started Super Bowl XXIV and I can see why that would slip my mind because all he did was throw five touchdown passes and compile a passer rating of 147.6.  Not memorable at all.  Joe Montana?  Never heard of him.  Young (who would later top that Montana performance, amazingly, with six touchdown passes in Super Bowl XXIX) did get into the game, completing two of three passes and running four times for six yards.  I’m not even going to look up the boxscore – I assume that was in mop-up time after Montana put the game away.

 

The second mistake I don’t feel quite as bad about because it was just an honest typo.  Like Russ here, I’m a huge (and hugely powerful) trivia geek when it comes to the Bucs and I knew our former player by the name of Obradovich was a Jim and not an Ed.  A good complementary tight end and a strong special teams player.  I’m guessing the wires in my brain, which are different than those of a normal human (obviously not always in a positive way) crossed Jim with the actual Ed O’Bradovich, the former Chicago Bear.  It happens.  I guess I should say I don’t feel too bad about it unless Jim Obradovich happened to read that column, because he probably wouldn’t appreciate the mistake.  But the fact that no Obradoviches called or e-mailed me with a correction (yes, it happens), I’m probably safe.

 

One final note before we begin: Happy Palindrome Day!  If you don’t know what I mean, try to figure it out.  Long-time readers will know that I’m weirdly obsessed with dates such as these.  Dumb, I know, but there are worse things to be obsessed with.  If you’ve had a daughter during the Justin Bieber era, you’re probably shaking your head in agreement right now.

 

Okay, now on to the good stuff.

 

**

 

1. George M. of Chesterfield, Virginia (but born in Tampa) asks:

Watching the 49er/Saints game, the Goose made the comment that the Niners had 18 offensive plays and 17 points (94%). What team has the highest percent ratio of plays per points scored. Just to make it somewhat easier on you, you can use the cutoff date of the AFL/NFL merger year. Thanks dude! You're Da Bomb!!!

 

Answer Man: No, thank you, George, for giving me that 1970 starting point.  Of course, if you’ve read any of my previous columns (and the fact that you sent in a stats-based question leads me to believe you have), you probably know that I usually do that myself anyway.  It’s…well, it’s convenient.

 

Actually, this particular question wouldn’t be too hard to take farther back than 1970, but you’re the boss here, George, so that’s where I’ll start.  In my first little prance through the stats, however, I did notice something interesting, especially considering which team is about to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl again.  Did you know that while the 16-0 New England Patriots (16-0 in the regular-season, before Pat haters and Giants fans chime in) were the highest-scoring team in NFL history, they might not have been the most prolific team ever?  If you change the criteria to points scored per game then you’ll find that the highest-scoring team of all-time was actually the 1950 Los Angeles Rams?  I sure didn’t.

 

That L.A. team, which incidentally was the first one in the NFL to have all of its games (home and away) televised, scored 38.8 points per game over the course of a 12-game schedule.  The 2007 Patriots scored 36.8 points per game over a 16-game schedule, which is admittedly incredible.  The ’50 Rams were led by Hall of Fame QB Norm Van Brocklin, had an incredible pair of receivers in Tom Fears and Crazylegs Hirsch (both also in the Hall of Fame) and even had a running back named Vitamin Smith, which is really cool.  Somehow, they “only” won nine of their 12 games, though that was enough to win the National Conference and propel them to the playoffs.  To complete this history lesson that you totally didn’t ask for and has actually delayed you receiving your answer by several minutes, the Rams lost the NFL Championship that year to the Cleveland Browns, 30-28.

 

Ah, my first pointless off-on-a-tangent ramble of the new year.  Sure feels good to be back!

 

Anyway, returning to your question, George, the only problem is that there aren’t any stat services that already display or have an easy way of cross-referencing points per play.  Yards per play, yes.  Points per game, yes.  But people don’t normally correlate number of plays and number of points…which of course is what made your question interesting to me (and I guess you, too).

 

Fortunately, there isn’t a huge variance in the number of plays over the course of a season between one team and another, or one season and another.  Last year, for instance, the lowest total of plays for any team (Indy) was 951 and the highest (New Orleans) was 1,117.  Twenty-three of the 32 teams had a play total between 990 and 1,040.  And yes, the highest-scoring teams coincided almost totally with the teams with the  most plays, so the points-per-play averages had even less variance.

 

However…and it’s a big “however,” which you probably figured out by the italics…there was a very significant outlier in that correlation last year.  The 2011 Green Bay Packers, the second-highest scoring team of all time and number-one on that list last year, obviously, also had the fifth-lowest plays total last year.  Green Bay ran 988 plays and scored 560 points, or a mark of 56.7% in the equation you described above in regards to the Niners/Saints game.  Personally, I think we should express our answers in points per play, which in this case is the same number but expressed differently: 0.567.  The Packers scored roughly half a point for every play they ran this past season.

 

Now, the big-play potential of Green Bay’s attack obviously had a lot to do with that incredible number.  QB Aaron Rodgers picked up 9.2 yards, on average, every time he threw the ball.  However, we should also point out that the Packers’ defense and special teams combined to score seven of the team’s 70 touchdowns, and that’s a bit of a fly in the ointment here.  I mean, you can see how we’re giving the Green Bay offense, as incredible as it was, a little unearned extra credit simply by dividing the team’s total points by the number of offensive plays.

 

Really, though, it’s just something we have to live with.  In that Niners game, when the home team had 17 points after running just 18 plays, it had already benefited from two Saints fumbles and an interception.  They had a four-yard TD drive and a six-yard FG drive.  San Francisco didn’t score directly on defense on their takeaways, but it was almost the same effect.

 

My point is, these situations are going to pepper any team’s season, and I don’t think we should split hairs about how the points were scored.  I do think it should inform our final answer, though.  We might find out that the 2011 Packers were the most efficient scoring team since the merger, in terms of points per play, and if we do we should at least give the ball-hawking defense (+24 TO ratio) some of the credit.

 

So, are the Packers number one?  Like I said, there is no direct way to search points per play, but the (relatively) small variance in plays per season makes it a little easier.  What I did was take every team that scored at least 25 points per game in a season since 1970, then added their total plays in that season to the chart and, bingo, there’s your list. There were 176 teams on that list, by the way, and after seeing the finished product and noting how little difference there was overall in the teams’ typical plays-per-game number, I’m completely confident that there isn’t some lower-scoring, low-play-total outlier out there.

 

Without further ado, yes, the 2011 Packers are number one on the list.  That average of 0.567 points per play was slightly better than that of the 2007 Patriots (0.557) and the 1998 Vikings (0.552).  You probably recognize those teams as some of the most famously productive offenses of recent vintage.  That’s how the whole top of the points-per-play list looks – lots of recent Rams, Colts and Saints teams, plus the 49er teams from the ‘90s.  Here’s the top 10:

 

Team

Pts.

Pts/Gm

Plays

Pts./Play

1. 2011 Packers

560

35.0

988

0.567

2. 2007 Patriots

589

36.8

1058

0.557

3. 1998 Vikings

556

34.8

1008

0.552

4. 2004 Colts

522

32.6

968

0.539

5. 2000 Rams

540

33.8

1014

0.533

6. 1999 Rams

526

32.9

994

0.529

7. 2010 Patriots

518

32.4

986

0.525

8. 2001 Rams

503

31.4

1007

0.500

9. 2009 Saints

510

31.9

1032

0.494

10. 2011 Saints

547

34.2

1117

0.490

 

Only eight teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger (and the Answer Man would wager there aren’t any from before that) have averaged more than .5 points per play, and two of them were this past season.  Seems like we’re in a golden age for offense.

 

Alright, that was fun.  I feel like I’m back in the groove!  Let’s keep this rolling.

 

**

 

2. Michael Ungerer of Tampa, Florida asks:

Hey, Answer Man. I've got a question about the rule book: Why (when downing a kick/punt) is the ball dead where the kicking team touches it, unless they are close enough that their momentum may take them into the end zone, in which case the ball is not down, until they stop? Example: Team A: punts, then is able to down the ball at team B's 45. Player (A) jumps, catches the ball @ the 45, but does not land until the 40. Ball is down at the 45, however if this was the 5 it would b a touchback.

 

Answer Man: Michael, you strike me as somebody who has perused the NFL Rulebook before (and if so, I feel for ya, man).  What with all the Team A and Player A business, it’s like  you’ve got the convoluted language down pat.  That’s probably a big hit with the ladies.

 

I get what you’re saying, but let me restate your two scenarios for the sake of everyone else out there, in case it seems confusing.  In both cases, Team A has punted the ball and one of its cover men is downfield attempting to down it.  As is the rule on all punts, the ball will be spotted wherever it is first touched by a Team A player.  This is actually referred to as “first touching,” in the rulebook.  Okay, from there we have:

 

* Scenario 1…The Team A player, chasing the bouncing ball, leaps from the ground and grabs the ball while he and the ball are airborne over the Team B 45-yard line.  The Team A player lands at the Team B 40-yard line.

 

* Scenario 2… The Team A player, chasing the bouncing ball, leaps from the ground and grabs the ball while he and the ball are airborne over the Team B 5-yard line.  The Team A player lands on or beyond Team’s goal line.

 

I bolded those little bits because they are the only differences between the two scenarios.  I personally think the player remaining airborne for another FIVE YARDS after touching the ball is a little dramatic and unlikely, but we’ll stick with your example because it’s easy to picture in the mind.

 

In Scenario 1, when the player lands, the ref takes the ball from him and marches it back to the 45, where the “first touching” occurred.  In Scenario 2, the ref takes the ball and marches back to the 20, NOT the 5, where the “first touching” occurred.  Michael wants to know why.

 

Well, my answer is very similar to the one I gave in an earlier column when discussing why a spiked pass to kill the clock is not considered intentional grounding, even though it seems to fit all the criteria.  The reason is that the NFL has specifically placed a passage in the rulebook to differentiate that scenario from the norm.  You are right, Michael, that the rules of punting specifically call for the ball to be moved back to the spot of the first touching by kicking team.  However, the NFL has a caveat for that same situation, when the player doing the first touching doesn’t also stop himself or drop the ball into the field of play before crossing the goal line.

 

In this case, we are referring to Rule 9, Section 3, Article 2, Item 3, and I quote:

 

If a player of the kicking team illegally catches or recovers a scrimmage kick, other than a field goal attempt from beyond the 20-yard line, and carries the ball across the goal line, or touches the goal line with any part of his body while in possession of the ball, the ball is dead, and the result of the play is a touchback.

 

Before anyone gets confused, the Rulebook actually refers to the act of the kicking team downing a punt as a “violation” and an “illegal recovery.”  Basically, they are using the terminology to differentiate between touching the ball after it has crossed the line, and touching the ball if it never crosses the line (for instance if it’s blocked), which is considered “legal” for the kicking team.  The “illegal recovery” doesn’t result in a penalty, but it gives the receiving team, as we know, possession of the ball at the spot of the touching.

 

You see, Michael, the NFL has simply made it one of its rules, or a subset of the overall punt-downing rule, that you have to stop your momentum before you reach the goal line if you want to down it inside the five and avoid a touchback.  And when you think about it, that makes sense.

 

See, the rules are designed not to give the punting team any extra advantage when downing the ball.  You know as well as I do that a cover man can’t just keep batting the ball towards the goal line until it stops.  It’s down where he first touches it, unless the ball subsequently bounces back in the direction of the kicking team, in which case the receiving team can choose to take it where it was touched or where it ended up.

 

In Scenario 1 above, the kicking team would get an advantage if the ball was spotted where the player landed, at the 40.  So it’s moved back to the 45, where it was first touched.

 

In Scenario 2 above, the kicking team would get an advantage if the ball was spotted where the player first touched it, at the 5.  So it’s called a touchback and moved out to the 20.

 

That certainly seems right to the Answer Man.  I hope that explanation helps you feel the same way.

 

**

 

3. Jim W. of Dixon, Illinois asks:

Answer Man... now that the ball has been moved up for kickoffs ... if it goes through the uprights would it be a score?... Jim.

 

Answer Man: Well…let me…try to…explain… … Jim.

 

Just kidding.  I like ellipses, too.  Anyway, I’m sure I’ve answered this question or something like it a handful of times before, but it’s a new offseason and we were just on the topic of kicking, so let’s bang this one out quickly.  This will be like mental sorbet for me between the last question and next one.

 

I’m sure common sense would lead all of us to guess that no, a kickoff that goes through the uprights is not a score.  It’s just a touchback.  Actually, that has nothing to do with the moving of the kickoff from the 30 back up to the 35; that’s always been the rule.  I guess Jim means that it’s more likely to happen now, so we’d better find out what the rule is.

 

There really isn’t a lot to discuss here, and that pains someone like me who is tangentially-challenged.  It’s simple really, and I’ll just a paraphrase the rulebook this time instead of going word for word.  The rules for a “free kick,” of which a normal kickoff is one variety, state that the play results in a touchback if, among other things, the gall goes out of bounds behind the receiving team’s goal line.  If a kickoff sails all the way across the end zone and over the crossbar but between the uprights, it is simply going out of bounds after crossing the goal line.  The rules also specifically state that it is a touchback if the kickoff strikes the goal post, cross bar or uprights.

 

That’s pretty much all there is to it.

 

**

 

4. James Jackson of Ironton, Ohio asks:

Why is it that college baseball players get drafted and sign contracts but they are still eligible to play college baseball with no penalty, but if a basketball or football player does it the whole program gets put on probation or worse?

 

Answer Man: Well, that’s kind of dramatically worded, but I get your point.  The main difference you’re pointing out here is that the NFL draft always marks the end of a college football player’s career and almost always that of a college basketball player’s career, but a baseball player can be drafted, even as a graduating high school player, and still be eligible to play college baseball.

 

I mean, a football player or basketball player who signs with an agent and/or declares for the draft and/or is drafted doesn’t necessarily do any damage to his college program.  Almost never, actually.  It’s when still supposedly amateur players take secret benefits, one way or another, that are later discovered, that problems arise for the program.  That sometimes does come from an agent, but it can also come from boosters or whatnot.

 

So let’s just focus on the difference between the draft procedures, particularly in regards to eligibility, for the NFL, the NBA and MLB.  (I’m glad you didn’t include the NHL, because hockey isn’t in the Answer Man’s wheelhouse.  There’s another background reveal for you.)

 

This is common to all three sports: You can’t sign with an agent and remain eligible to play in college.  That the way it works in the three sports diverges from here is essentially a function of how directly players are able to move from college (or high school) to the pro ranks.

 

In the NFL, the majority of drafted players are able to immediately play in the league as rookies.  The same is true in the NBA, though to a slightly lesser percentage.  In MLB, however, it is the exact opposite; it is very rare for a drafted player to make it to the professional ranks as a rookie.  In fact, most players need years in the minors before they make the jump, and the vast majority never make it to the pros at all.  Even players considered once-in-a-generation talents, like Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, need seasoning.  Harper was selected first overall in the 2010 MLB Draft (which was held in June of that year) and might get a call-up in 2012.

 

In football, you can’t declare for the draft until you’ve been in college for at least three years, and the majority of the players who declare after their junior seasons are top-notch talents who can feel pretty confident that they’re going to make it.  So you’re either a junior expecting to make it or a senior whose college days are done anyway.  In the NFL, once you declare for the draft, there’s no going back; your college eligibility is gone.

 

It’s similar in the NBA, although a player can declare for the draft and still go back to college ball if he withdraws his name from consideration before a specific date.  You can only do this once, and again, you cannot sign with an agent or your college days are done.

 

Here’s the big difference in the MLB: You don’t have to declare for the draft.  You are just automatically eligible if you meet certain criteria.  Essentially, you are eligible for the MLB draft if, a) you have graduated from high school but not yet attended college or junior college; b) you have played ball at a four-year college and have completed your junior or senior seasons and are at least 21 years old, or; c) you have played at a junior college, no matter how many years of school you’ve completed.

 

It is not uncommon – and I think this is what you’re getting at in your question, James – for a very good high school baseball player to be drafted by an MLB team but also be recruited by various colleges (sometimes in another sport, as well).  That player can then choose one of those two options – he can go professional right after high school or he can go to college and continue to work on his game and hope to get drafted again several years later.  Sometimes, of course, the deciding factor is how much money the drafting team wants to pay him.  The key here is that, even in baseball, you can’t sign with a player agent.  A player who is drafted and is considering signing with an MLB team can use an ‘advisor’ – maybe a lawyer or a family friend.  Not sure why “lawyer” is more acceptable than “agent,” but I guess those are the rules.

 

If the drafted high school player signs, he’s then a pro and cannot play college baseball later.  However, he can look into the possibility, then not sign and he will become eligible again later, after several years in college ball, or sooner if he goes to junior college.

 

So your question was, “Why is it that baseball players can get drafted but still play college baseball?”  One way to answer it would be to say: “Those are the rules of the baseball draft, which differ from those of football and basketball.”  That’s the simple truth.  The more expanded answer is, “Baseball has different draft-and-eligibility rules because it almost always takes a lot longer for a baseball prospect to develop into a pro-ready player than it does in football or basketball.”

 

**

 

5. Caleb Martinez of Tampa, Florida asks:

Hey, Answer Man, as you know there were a few NFL records broken this season and I was just wondering what NFL records have any Buccaneer players ever broken?  And if they still currently hold the record or not?

 

Answer Man: Good question, Caleb.  It sure was a record-breaking year, huh?  Most notably, Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old record for passing yards in a single season, which Tom Brady would have broken if Brees hadn’t.  Marino’s 1984 record was 5,084, and Brees had 5,476 this year, a little more than Brady’s 5,235.  (Heck, with Matt Stafford passing for 5,038 yards and Eli Manning for 4,933, four of the top six passing-yardage seasons in NFL history were just witnessed this past fall.  Shows you how the game is evolving.)

 

The Answer Man is aware of seven individual NFL records that were at one point held by a Buccaneer, four of which remain the all-time standard, or tied for the top mark.  Three of those seven belong to running back James Wilder and are very closely related, mostly stemming from the fact that Wilder was something of a one-man offense for the Bucs in 1984.

 

That season, Wilder carried the ball 407 times for the Buccaneers, which broke the all-time mark of 390 set by Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams just the year before (as a rookie!).  Dickerson almost took the mark back in 1986 but came up just short with 404 carries.  Wilder’s record stood until the a Dirty Bird took flight in Atlanta.  In 1998, Jamaal Anderson dropped Wilder from the top spot with 410 carries.  That record lasted another eight years until Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs rushed 416 times in 2006, which is the current record.

 

Wilder actually tied a related record in 1984, rushing 43 times in a game against Green Bay on September 30.  That tied the single-game mark set by Butch Woolfork of the New York Giants against Philadelphia, also just the year before.  Those two would share that all-time NFL record until Jamie Morris of the Washington Redskins ran 45 times against Cincinnati in 1988.

 

Wilder still owns two of the top seven marks on that list, having also ran 42 times against Pittsburgh on October 30, 1983.  In that game, Wilder also caught six passes, which gave him 48 “attempts” in a category the NFL calls “combined net yards.” This is defined to include yards gained by rushing, receiving, interception returns, punt returns, kickoff returns and fumble returns.  As an example, Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown had 1,108 receiving yards, 41 rushing yards, 325 punt return yards and 737 kickoff return yards this past season, for a total of 2,211 combined net yards.  Which is like…wow.  He did that on 30 punt returns, 27 kickoff returns, 69 catches and seven runs, for a total of 133 “attempts” to gain those combined net yards.

 

Well, Wilder’s 48 touches, if you will, in that 1983 Pittsburgh were at the time, and are still, the most any player has had in a single game in NFL history.  That record has now stood for close to 30 years.

 

On December 6, 1987, Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw for 369 yards in his first NFL start.  At the time, that was the highest mark ever for a rookie.  You probably won’t be surprised to learn, given our earlier discussion of passing-stats explosion, that Testaverde’s original mark has since been absolutely buried.  At this point, it is only 18th on the list, and Cam Newton topped it twice last year alone.

 

The other Buccaneers still standing at the top of one of the records listed in the NFL’s all-time list are current kicker Connor Barth, current cornerback Ronde Barber (not surprisingly) and former punt returner Danny Reece.

 

In Miami on November 15, 2009, Barth connected on three successful field goals of 50 or more yards in the same game.  He became the fourth player in league history to accomplish that feat, tying the all-time mark also held by Atlanta’s Morten Andersen, Arizona’s Neil Rackers and Houston’s Kris Brown.

 

Against Philadelphia on October 22, 2006, Barber returned two interceptions for touchdowns, which ties the all-time single-game record.  It’s been done a lot – 25 times heading into the 2011 season – including once against the Buccaneers – but it’s never been topped, so Barber officially still owns a share of the record.

 

Finally, we get to the Buccaneer who has steadfastly held his position in the NFL record books the longest.  In 1979, the amazingly fearless Reece returned 70 punts, which remains the most any player has ever recorded in a single season.  There were two reasons Reece’s total climbed so high: 1) The Bucs’ had the league’s best defense, so opposing punts were aplenty and; 2) Reece might have forgotten what the fair catch signal was.

 

Reece returned 222 punts for Tampa Bay during the team’s first five years of existence.  In all that time, he executed exactly seven fair catches.  Seven!  He obviously had no fear.  As a comparison, Karl “The Truth” Williams returned 213 punts as a Buccaneer and also made 92 fair catches.  And believe me, no one ever called Williams’ a scaredy-cat.

 

There are also Bucs, or at least players who spent part of their careers with Tampa Bay, at other spots in the all-time record book, which usually lists the top three in every category.  So, while there are currently no all-time NFL records belonging to Buccaneer players, there are some categories in which a Tampa Bay player comes in second or third.

 

For instance:

 

* K Matt Bryant’s 62-yard field goal against Philadelphia on the same date as Barber’s two pick-sixes is the fourth-longest in NFL history, one yard shorter than the record of 63 that is now shared by three people.  New Orleans’ Tom Dempsey famously set the mark in 1970, and it was then tied by Denver’s Jason Elam in 1998 and then again just this past season by Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski.

* QB Steve Young  used to own the NFL’s career record for passer rating, finishing at 96.8.  Obviously, the vast majority of that work came with the San Francisco 49ers, but Young’s first two seasons in the NFL were with Tampa Bay.  That mark is also not number one anymore; with the league’s QBs going nuts in recent years, it now stands third behind Aaron Rodgers’ 104.1 and Tony Romo’s 96.9, with Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all knocking on Young’s door.

* In 1990, the Bucs’ Wayne Haddix returned three interceptions for touchdowns.  Derrick Brooks repeated the feat in 2002.  Both Haddix and Brooks fell just one shy of the league record of four, shared by Houston’s Ken Houston (1971), Kansas City’s Jim Kearney (1972) and Philadelphia’s Eric Allen (1993).

* P Sean Landeta spent one of his 867 NFL seasons (note: approximate) in Tampa, so the Bucs are officially a part of his 1,401 career punts.  That’s second all-time to Jeff Feagles’ 1,713.  I say that assuming neither Landeta nor Feagles resurfaced somewhere in 2011.  That didn’t happen right?  I wouldn’t put it past either one of them.

 

**

 

6. Joe of Los Angeles, California asks:

Sal Alosi (of Tripgate) was just hired by UCLA. One question I never got answered was this: Why are players permitted to run down the sidelines out of bounds if it is not legal to block them while they are out of bounds?

 

Answer Man: The answer, Joe?  They’re not.

 

Let’s start at the beginning, as the “gunner” on the punt team is lined up wide, opposed by one or two blockers on the return team.  At the snap, that gunner is going to do his best to get around or through the blocker(s) and make his way to the return man, while the blockers are going to try to prevent that.  Sometimes, that leads to the gunner, crossing the sideline and going out of bounds.

 

Now, the gunner CANNOT legally leave the field of play on his own volition.  He cannot just run out of bounds untouched in an attempt to get around the blockers.  If he does, whether or not he later becomes involved in the play, he is subject to penalty.  Read this example from the “Casebook” that serves as an addendum to the NFL Rulebook and offers up possible scenarios to test the rules:

 

A.R. 9.73    KICKER OUT OF BOUNDS DURING A PUNT

Fourth-and-12 on A21.  At the snap, A1, who is lined up wide on punt coverage, runs out of bounds untouched to avoid being blocked by B1 and B2.  A1 returns to the field of play at the A26.  B1 attempts to catch the punted ball at the B41 but muffs it and the ball rolls to the B19 where B3 and A4 simultaneously recover the ball.

Ruling: Fourth-and-17 on A16 or B’s ball, first-and-10 on B24.  Team B has the option to enforce at the previous spot or the succeeding spot.

 

So the player from the kicking team draws a penalty for running out of bounds untouched, which nullifies everything good for the punting team, including a potential fumble recovery.

 

Now, if the gunner is forced out of bounds during the course of being blocked by the other team’s players, there is nothing illegal about that.  Here’s the very next entry in the Casebook:

 

A.R. 9.74    KICKER OUT OF BOUNDS DURING A PUNT – NO FOUL

Fourth-and-7 on A31.  A1, who is attempting to cover the fourth-down punt, is contacted and forced out of bounds by B3 at the A34.  A1 returns to the field of play at the A39.  B2 signals for and makes a fair catch at the B39.

Ruling: B’s ball, first-and-10 on B39.  Contact by B3 is what caused A1 to run out of bounds.  No foul.

 

Okay, we’re really only now getting to the crux of Joe’s question.  There are two ways that the gunner could be running out of bounds, if he goes out on his own, or if he is forced out.  If he goes out on his own, that’s a penalty right there, and it doesn’t matter whether he keeps running or is blocked or whatever.  However, if he’s forced out, nothing illegal has happened but now he finds himself outside the field of play.  Can he continue running down the field, out of bounds?

 

No, he cannot.  After he is forced out of bounds, a player must attempt to reestablish himself in the field of play as quickly as possible.  The defensive players must do the same if they went out of bounds in the process, and they may not block the gunner while he is out of bounds.  Notice in the Casebook example above that the player leaves the field at the A34 and comes back in at the A39.  Assuming he was angling out of bounds at the A34 (note that the line of scrimmage was the A31, so he was making forward progress while heading to the sideline), then getting back inbounds after five yards probably represents an affair to get back as quickly as possible.

 

I’m sure it must be infuriating to a blocker when a player continues to run downfield out of bounds for 10 or 15 yards.  This is supposed to be enforced by the officials.  As a matter of fact, that “Tripgate” episode that you mentioned, Joe, not only got the Jets’ Alosi in hot water back in December of 2010 but it also kicked off a variety of debates about the subject as a whole.

 

Alosi was suspended indefinitely by the Jets after the incident and later resigned when it was revealed that he had instructed a group of inactive Jet players to line up shoulder-to-shoulder a few yards off the sideline during a Miami punt.  Many claimed this was a relatively common tactic around the NFL, and it arose in response to gunners taking their sweet time getting back into the field of play.  By quietly forming a wall, those Alosi-led Jets were allegedly making it harder for gunners to run freely down the sideline out of bounds.  In this case, Alosi took it a step farther and tripped the Dolphins’ Nolan Carroll, which made it into a much bigger deal and subsequently shined light on the practice.

 

So, to answer your question directly, Joe, I can’t tell you “why” it is legal for players to run down the sideline out of bounds without being blocked, because it isn’t legal.

 

**

 

And that will do it for me; I hope it was yet another triumphant return (I think I use that line every year).  There were more good questions in the inbox, but we’ve got to save something for the coming weeks, in case the well starts to run dry.  In particular, I considered answering one more from Burkey in Tampa about Earnest Graham’s recovery, but I decided to punt that until the next column in hopes of having more detailed information.

 

So, thanks for all the great questions as we start another offseason, and please keep them coming.