As far as droughts go, this one is barely giving us a dry throat.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began play in 1976 and famously didn't get their first punt or kickoff return for a touchdown until 1994, in their 19th season. Vernon Turner mercifully put that drought to an end with his 80-yard score on a punt return against Detroit on October 2 of that '94 season. It would be 13 more long years before the franchise enjoyed its first kickoff return for a touchdown, that one the product of Micheal Spurlock's 90-yard jaunt against Atlanta on December 16, 2007.
Spurlock's historic run came on, incredibly, the 1,865th kickoff return in team history. I happen to know this because, at the time, one of my game-day duties was always having this updated number on hand just in case it finally happened. It was a long time before I actually got to give that number to the broadcasters. So excuse me if I'm not exactly torn up by the fact that the Buccaneers have currently played eight seasons plus eight games since their last kickoff or punt return for a touchdown.
That being said, it does suck. Kick return touchdowns are thrilling, and even though they are relatively rare (and becoming more so), they are often game-changing. The history-making Spurlock banked a second kickoff-return touchdown on November 7, 2010 – also against Atlanta – and since then 42 different players have returned at least one kickoff or punt for the Buccaneers. None of them took one to the house.
It would be wonderful if that mini-drought ended in 2019. Will it? As is the case all this week, staff writer Carmen Vitali and I just can't agree on the answer. For each of the questions below, Carmen and I are going to say yes or no. We'll find out later this year who was right and who was wrong.
Tuesday: Will the Buccaneers record their first kickoff/punt return touchdown in nine years?
Wednesday: Will Jameis Winston throw 30 or more touchdown passes in his fifth NFL campaign?
Thursday: Will at least two Buccaneer defenders make the Pro Bowl in 2019?
Friday: Will any Buccaneer defender get 10 or more sacks this season?
View the top photos of our wide receivers during the 2019 offseason.
Yes or no: Will the Buccaneers record their first kickoff/punt return touchdown in nine years?
Carmen Vitali: No
We’ve specified kickoff/punt return as the only qualified kicks and as such, the missed field goal Adam Humphries returned to the house last year against the Detroit Lions doesn’t count. It was also preseason – do with that what you will. As far as kickoff and punt returns are concerned, the odds are stacked against the Bucs not just because of the drought but also because they’re purposely stacked against every team. The league has deemed returns of any kind as one of the more dangerous aspects of the game and have implemented and amended the rulebook accordingly to discourage such plays.
Over the years as the league’s kickoff rules have adjusted to make returns safer, there have been consistently less and less returns of any kind for touchdowns league-wide. Last year, there were just five kickoffs returned for touchdowns and seven punts. That was down from 2015 where the league saw seven kickoff-return touchdowns and 13 punt-return touchdowns. Go back to 2007 in the golden age of guys like the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester and we saw a touchdown return on 25 kickoffs and 17 punts. What a time to be alive, am I right?
But those days are no more. And while it seems the Bucs are placing an extra emphasis on special teams this year, that doesn’t exactly mean an uptick in returns. The team lost its best kick returner in wide receiver Adam Humphries and it’s anyone’s guess who will take the bulk of the work in 2019. Not that it really makes a difference. The point I’m trying to hit home with is that it doesn’t matter who’s waiting back there because the league has made it harder and harder for returns to happen due to safety concerns and those efforts are working.
All that being said, if the guys in front of whoever the returner is end up throwing more blocks as a result of the emphasis we’ve seen on special teams, anything is possible – including ending this return drought. It’s obviously a similar dynamic to running backs and their offensive lines. If you have a good enough O-line, just about anyone could get through the running lanes opened up. The same goes for kick returns. I’m going to quit while I’m ahead though before I change my own mind.
Scott Smith: Yes
In the eight seasons in which the Bucs have gone return touchdown-free, every other team in the NFL has had at least one kickoff or punt return go the distance. Twenty-six of those other 31 teams have had at least one punt return score and at least one kickoff return score. I'm not really being too scientific with my "yes" answer, I'm just saying, man, are the Buccaneers due.
Obviously, a team is more likely to get some points out of its return game if it happens to have a star return man. If you have Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs or Dante Hall on your team, you're not going eight years without a touchdown. But it's not exactly a requirement. Karl Williams, who owns five of the 11 punt return TDs in Bucs history, is really the only player in team history who has had sustained success in that area over a large number of years. Clifton Smith burned bright but got bad injury luck and didn't last too long. Spurlock had those two scores but otherwise it's been a pretty random thing in team history. Did you recall that Sammy Stroughter had a kickoff return touchdown?
So I don't think the lack of an established kick-return star necessarily disqualifies the Bucs from having a shot at scoring in that phase of the game. Simply having good hands and above-average speed makes any returner a potential threat; if his blockers just happen to give him a sudden seam, or if one cover man messes up and gets out of his lane, he can pop one.
That said, maybe there is a star return man waiting to be born on the Bucs' current roster. Bobo Wilson showed a spark near the end of the year, with a very good 28.4-yard average on 10 kickoff returns, even though none of them were longer than 38. Bruce Arians mentioned there were some potential candidates among the team's rookies, too. The punt return job is wide open after the departure of Adam Humphries, so somebody new (or maybe several somebodies) is going to get a shot.
That 18-and-a-half year drought was weird, but after Turner ended it in 1994 the Buccaneers were pretty normal in that category for the next decade and a half. From 1994 through 2010 the team had at least one kickoff or punt return touchdown in 12 of those 17 seasons. Yes, new rules have marginalized the kickoff return to some extent, but punts remain largely the same. A team shouldn't go nine years without getting at least one bit of luck on a punt or kickoff return. Like I said, this isn't scientific; my gut just tells me it's time.