WR Micheal Spurlock was one of several return men who excelled for the Buccaneers in 2009
Micheal Spurlock's lasting place in Tampa Bay Buccaneers lore was secured in 2007 when he became the first player in franchise history to return a kickoff for a touchdown.
Spurlock also guaranteed himself a spot in the Bucs' 2009 highlight film, despite playing only two games, when he returned a punt 77 yards for a score in the fourth quarter of an eventual 20-17 upset of the NFC's #1 playoff seed, the New Orleans Saints.
But on Wednesday, Spurlock pulled off a feat that was perhaps even more unexpected: He gained seven kickoff return yards three days after the last game of the season.
True, the second-year receiver probably isn't even aware of his midweek gain, nor did he technically do anything to get those seven yards. As happens on occasion, the NFL's official statskeepers, the Elias Sports Bureau, used a midweek review to change the ruling on a couple plays in Tampa Bay's season-ending 20-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. One of the plays that was deemed to be scored incorrectly on game day was Spurlock's first kickoff return of the game.
The Bucs return man fielded a bouncing kickoff at the five-yard line and returned it to the 12 before he was tackled, but the original scoresheet mistakenly noted that Spurlock fielded the ball at the 12. When the play was reviewed by Elias, the mistake was clear and Spurlock – and the Buccaneers – were credited with seven more return yards against the Falcons.
So, yes, it's also true that we were being a bit tongue-in-cheek about Spurlock's most recent "accomplishment." But those seven yards were significant in one specific way, and they underscore one area in which the Buccaneers were nothing short of fantastic in 2009, despite the team's overall struggles.
The scoring change gave Spurlock three runbacks for 54 yards in the season finale, and pushed the Buccaneers' final team total to 1,630 yards on 62 kickoff returns. Those seven yards increased Tampa Bay's overall kickoff return average just a smidgen, from 26.18 yards per return to 26.29, but that was enough to move the Bucs from second place into first in the NFL rankings. The Baltimore Ravens, who averaged 26.22 yards per kickoff return, were bounced to second place.
The Bucs' number-one ranking completes a four-year climb for a team that had used to struggle to find a spark in the return game. The 2005 division-winning team ranked 30th in the NFL in kickoff return average and tried five different players in that role. The 2006 team improved slightly to 25th and the 2007 squad, thanks to Spurlock's late-season boost, finished 12th.
The arrival of eventual Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith last year was the final piece for a team that generally excels in all areas of special teams under the direction of coordinator Rich Bisaccia. With Smith taking over a sputtering return game at midseason, the Bucs managed a team-record 24.8-yard kickoff return average and finished sixth in the NFL.
Smith was back in 2009 and as good as ever, but a pair of concussions eventually sent him to injured reserve. Rookie wide receiver Sammie Stroughter stepped in and was every bit as good before his own foot fracture ended his campaign two games early. Spurlock finished up the season, with a little help from rookie running back Kareem Huggins.
That embarrassment of riches in the return-man ranks – and, of course, the team's excellent blockers and blocking schemes – allowed the Buccaneers to lead the NFL in that category for the first time in franchise history.
What makes it clear that the Bucs' prowess in the return game extends well beyond the men with the football in their hands is this: Tampa Bay also finished second in the NFL in kickoff return average allowed.
As it turns out, that's not particularly unusual. Of the 10 teams that finished in the top 10 in kickoff return average in the NFL this year, seven of them also were among the 10 best kickoff coverage units. It would seem obvious that those teams have advantages in coaching, overall talent in their cores of special teamers, or both. However, only the Buccaneers were in the top two in both categories.
Here, Tampa Bay has a longer-running history of success. The Bucs were first in the NFL in opponent kickoff return average in 2006 and have now been in the top five for four years running. The Bucs' mark this year was 19.1 yards per return allowed, down from 20.8 last year, and 19.5 in 2007. The 2009 mark nearly matched the team record set in 2006, when opponents averaged just 18.4 yards per kickoff return against Tampa Bay.
It also made the Buccaneers the first team since Buffalo in 2004 to finish in the top two in the NFL's rankings for both kickoff return average and opponent kickoff return average. The Bills were second in both categories that season. The last team to pull off the Bucs' 2009 feat – first in one category and second in the other – was the Arizona Cardinals in 2000.
Kickoff return success helped the Bucs get better field position, obviously, in 2009. Tampa Bay ranked sixth in the NFL in opponent average kickoff drive start; that is, the average yard line at which their foes' possessions started only on drives that followed kickoffs. The Bucs were able to succeed in this situation despite not having a kickoff specialist who could routinely drive the ball into the end zone. Of the top six teams in this category, four had at least 22 touchbacks on the season; Tampa Bay had nine.
Obviously, these statistics can be dissected in a number of manners. Any way you slice it, however, it's clear that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers excelled when it came to kickoffs in 2009.