The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have accomplished several feats during their first 30 seasons in the NFL.
Division championships, NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl title to name a few.
But heading into their 31st season, the Bucs still have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown during a regular season football game. Not one. Not ever.
In 2005, 11 players returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown, and Houston Texans wide receiver Jerome Mathis led the league with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Mathis was a rookie and Houston, which entered the league in 2002, is the NFL’s newest franchise. The Buccaneers entered the NFL in 1976.
For those of you who are counting, or have lost count for that matter, the Bucs have had a total of 133 players return a total of 1,764 kickoffs without scoring a touchdown.
Tampa Bay came close to snapping this streak in 2001 when running back Aaron Stecker broke off an 86-yard return vs. the New Orleans Saints, but close doesn’t count in this particular instance.
It’s a perplexing stat to say the least, and one that Bucs RB Michael Pittman will have the opportunity to erase as Tampa Bay’s kickoff returner this season.
“I’ll be doing it this weekend and I plan on doing it for the rest of the year,” said Pittman. “We have a great game plan in it for this week and I’m going to do my best returning kickoffs.
“In the past we did [talk about the kickoff return stat], but not right now. We’re trying to be the best kickoff return unit in the league, and that’s what we’re focused on right now. If we break one I’ll be very excited, and the whole unit will be very excited.”
Tampa Bay struggled in the kickoff return department in 2005, averaging 19.5 yards per attempt. The Bucs gave several players, including Edell Shepherd, Torrie Cox, Mark Jones and Earnest Graham, the opportunity to return kicks, but none of them were successful enough to hold onto the job.
But that changed in Week 17 when Pittman volunteered to give it a shot. It was something he hadn’t done since his playing days with the Arizona Cardinals, but Pittman felt he could help the team.
It turned out Pittman was right. He returned three kickoffs and averaged an impressive 28.3 yards per return vs. the New Orleans Saints and handled kickoff return duties again in Tampa Bay’s playoff game vs. Washington. Pittman didn’t spend much time in training camp or any time in preseason fielding kickoffs, but he says that was by design. Pittman feels he’s ready to step in and make an immediate impact as the team’s kickoff returner.
“I feel comfortable coming right in and doing it,” said Pittman. “[Bucs special teams coach Richard] Bisaccia didn’t really want to show too much this preseason. I don’t really want to say too much about it since we are playing the Ravens this week, but I feel like I’m ready to go.”
While the Bucs remain touchdown-less in Tampa Bay on kickoff returns, Pittman’s first priority is improving the offense’s starting field position. Last year, the Bucs’ average starting field position was the 25.5 yard line, which ranked 29th in the league.
“It’s big,” Pittman said of starting field position. “Instead of starting on your 2-yard line or at your 10-yard line, you start at your 30- or 35-yard line and all of the sudden things open up for your offense. You can come out running, passing or play-action passing. Most likely you’re going to come out running from your own goal line because you can’t afford to take a sack. Field position is key, and my main goal is to improve it.”