It’s been dubbed the year of the kick returner in the Canadian Football League and the numbers certainly back up that claim.
Last weekend, there were four return touchdowns, bringing the total in 2019 to 18 through nine weeks of action. That means with more than half of the regular season still to play, there has already been three more than what was recorded all of last season.
In case you were wondering if last year was a down year, think again. There were 16 scored in 2017, 14 in 2016 and 13 in 2015. CFL statistician Steve Daniel said the single-season record of 22 kick returns was set in 2004.
With the current pace, that number could be surpassed this week.
"It’s sort of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ in that you better have a good returner because the opponent is going to have one and you better be able to block for him because the opponent will and you need to cover," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said after Monday’s practice at IG Field.
"Guys need to get downfield and be relentless in their pursuit and detailed in their coverage responsibilities or else you’ll get scored on. It’s a fun time for the league."
Having a good returner has always been on the list of to-dos for each team, with clubs having varying degrees of success. This year, though, there appears to be a collective effort to boost the return game, or at least the numbers point to almost every team getting in on the action. Translation: it’s not a few teams that are accounting for all the yards and points.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats lead the way with five; Blue Bombers and B.C. Lions have three; Ottawa Redblacks and Saskatchewan Roughriders each have two; and the Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Alouettes and Calgary Stampeders are at one. That makes the Edmonton Eskimos the only team without a return touchdown this year.
Surveying a handful of Bombers coaches and players, all of which have a notable role on special teams, the answers for why such a dramatic spike in success this season varied. Most gave credit to the current crop of returners, noting an improvement in skill from previous years. Others see it a bit differently.
Special teams co-ordinator Paul Boudreau had an interesting theory. He figured the high number of return touchdowns this season is the by-product of the league’s decision to eliminate padded practices. He also noted that some cover units are still finding chemistry, meaning he expected the number to curtail as the season progresses.
"You get like two days of pads the entire year. So, tackling has gone to the side a little bit. Also, early in the season it’s hard for cover groups to mesh because you really only have one pre-season game. You only get so many reps in practice, you can’t simulate, unlike offence and defence, you can’t really simulate a kickoff quite as well," he said.
"It takes some time for the cover units to gel but as it’s going right now we’re halfway through the season and people are still doing it. Tip your hat to some pretty good returners back there. But I think sometimes — and we’ve been part of that, too — if one guy doesn’t do his job in coverage then some of these guys can make you pay."
Boudreau, in his fourth season with the Bombers after spending years with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, said he realized full-force tackling in practice has never been permitted while he’s worked in the CFL. But, he added, when you have protection covering your upper body, drills tend to be a lot more physical, which can be a better representation of what you might see in a game.
"That’s just my own opinion," he said. "But it’s interesting how much the return is impacting the outcome of games."
Look no further than the Bombers.
Winnipeg’s Janarion Grant returned two punts for touchdowns, accounting for much of the Bombers’ points in a 26-24 home win over the Stampeders on Thursday. Two weeks before, while playing the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton, the Bombers’ inability to hold on to the ball in the return game — they fumbled twice — cost them the game. And last week, Redblacks returner DeVonte Dedmon carried his team to a 30-27 win over Montreal, returning a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns.
"It’s all about momentum in special teams and being able to keep the momentum on your side. You never want to be on the side of the ball where you’re putting a negative momentum swing in the other team’s favour," Mike Miller, who leads the Bombers in special teams tackles, said. "When you score that’s obviously huge and definitely can be game-changing, no doubt about it."
While others agree the loss of padded practices could be a factor, that argument somewhat ignores history. After all, the rule came into effect late into the 2017 season, meaning any perceived advantage existed all of last season, too.
Bombers kicker Justin Medlock takes more of a preventative approach, suggesting kickers need to be doing a better job at making it difficult for the returners. But that’s a lot easier said than done.
"We had a big return against us this year and it was a great kick. I had three bad punts against (Toronto’s Chris) Rainey here at home and he didn’t do anything, so those guys saved me," Medlock said, adding after the game he texted Miller in the middle of the night to thank him.
"Everybody kind of helps out, right? There are 12 men out there on the field and they all have to contribute. Obviously it starts on the kick, so you’re looking for good location on that."
What’s surprised Medlock the most this season is just how many kickoff touchdowns there’s been this year. When Hamilton’s Freddy Williams returned a kickoff 73 yards against the Lions Friday night, it was a CFL-record ninth time this season.
To understand just how impressive that number is, using recent memory as a reference, between the 2015 and 2018 seasons there were a combined total of just eight. Dating back to 1958, when the CFL was first officially formed, there has been an average of between two and three kickoff return touchdowns each season.
"We take a lot of pride in our coverage, which I’m sure every unit does, but you like to be able to go out there and shut a group down that’s been plugging along pretty well. It gives you some confidence," said Boudreau. "It’s just worked out to 18 touchdowns this year — it’s nuts."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Tuesday, August 13, 2019 at 10:30 AM CDT: Added to Bombers home page