A return specialist or kick returner is a player on the special teams unit of an American football or Canadian football team who specializes in returning punts and/or kickoffs. There are few players who are exclusively return specialists; most also play another position such as wide receiver or running back. The special teams counterpart of a return specialist is a kicking specialist.
According to All-American Venric Mark, "Returning punts is harder. You have to judge the ball more, you have to know when to fair catch and when not to. You can't be a superhero and try to catch everything. With kickoff returns, you catch the ball and — boom — you're going."
A kickoff returner (KR) is the player on special teams who is primarily responsible for catching the opposing team's kickoff and attempting to run it towards the end zone to score a touchdown. If the ball is kicked into his own end zone, the kick returner must assess the situation on the field while the ball is in the air and determine if it would be beneficial to his team for a return. If he decides that it is not, he can make a touchback by kneeling down in the end zone after catching the ball, ending the play and starting the next play at the 25-yard line to start the drive.
The kickoff returner position is often played by a small, faster player such as a cornerback, running back or wide receiver. Backup players frequently assume this role so starting players on the offense take less hits as the kickoff returner position, and can play their regular positions. In the days of one platoon football, the returner position was synonymous with the "safety man" - a quarterback or halfback.
In 2012, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell proposed the idea of removing the kickoff play, and quoted that the "kickoff return is too dangerous for the game." The idea was met with criticism and the idea was eventually dropped.
Notable kickoff returners
- Red Grange was one of the sport's first iconic faces, breaking onto the national scene with a 95-yard kickoff return against Michigan.
- Gale Sayers was an All-Pro running back who also returned punts and kicked for the Chicago Bears. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. He currently holds the record for the highest kickoff return average at 30.56 yards per attempt. Brad Oremland of Sports Central called him the greatest kick returner in NFL history.
- Deion Sanders played cornerback for multiple NFL teams and also played kick returner and a punt returner on special teams. Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. Sanders totaled 3,523 kick return yards in his career, including 3 touchdowns. Sanders held the record for most special teams touchdowns, 19 in total, until Devin Hester broke the record in the 2014 season.
- Desmond Howard MVP of Super Bowl XXXI
- Dante Hall played wide receiver and as a kick returner "was the most dangerous player in the NFL for a couple of seasons".
A punt returner (PR) has the job of catching the ball after it is punted and to give his team good field position (or a touchdown if possible) by returning it. Before catching the punted ball, the returner must assess the situation on the field while the ball is still in the air. He must determine if it is actually beneficial for his team to attempt a return. If it appears that the players from the punting team will be too close to the returner by the time he catches the ball, or it appears the ball will go into his own end zone, the punt returner can elect not to return the ball by choosing one of two options:
- Call for a fair catch by waving one arm above his head before catching the punt. This means that the play will end once the catch is made; the punt returner's team will get the ball at the spot of the catch and no return attempt can be made. The fair catch minimizes the chances of a fumble or injury because it ensures that the returner is fully protected from the opposing team, whose players may not touch the returner or attempt to interfere with the catch in any way after the fair catch signal is given. In the NFL, a fair catch also allows the fair catch kick to be used on the next play, even with no time on the clock remaining, to attempt a field goal via free kick. However, this option is rarely exercised.
- Avoid the ball and let it hit the ground. Under this option the ball will go into the returning team's end zone for a touchback, go out of bounds and be spotted at that point, or come to final rest in the field of play and be downed by a player on the punting team. This is the safest option, as it completely eliminates the chance of a fumble and ensures that the returner's team will get possession of the ball. However, it also provides an opportunity for the punting team to pin the returner's team deep in their own territory by downing the ball or sending it out of bounds near the returner's end zone. This can not only give the return team poor field position, but can even lead to a safety.
Punt returners sometimes also return kickoffs and usually play other positions, especially wide receiver, defensive back and running back, although sometimes as backups. An analogous position exists in Canadian football, though differences in rules affect play considerably. See comparison of Canadian and American football for a complete discussion of the punt returner's role in the Canadian game.
- Greenstein, Teddy (2010-08-24). "Northwestern's Mark attracting notice: Freshman likely to get nod returning kickoffs and will get shot at punts". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2012-12-11.
- Rosenthal, Greg. "Roger Goodell mulls idea of eliminating NFL kickoffs". NFL.com. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
- "Cordarrelle Patterson ties NFL record with 109-yard kickoff return". CBSSports.com.
- "Devin Hester passes Deion Sanders for return TD mark". NFL.com.
- "Red Grange, Football Hero of 1920's, Dead at 87". The New York Times. 29 January 1991.
- "The Best Kick Returners in NFL History". sports-central.org. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
- "Top 10 returners in NFL history". 20 December 2007.
- "Football Special Teams: How to Return a Punt".
- "Football 101: The Rules of NFL Football Fair Catch".