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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a regular season or post-season game during their 30-year history.
Who would have thought that the Bucs would win a Super Bowl before they’d return a kickoff for a touchdown? In fact, who would have guessed that three more seasons would pass without the Bucs breaking what is arguably the most embarrassing streak in the NFL history?
No one could blame Tampa Bay fans for losing count by now, but for inquiring minds that want to know, the Bucs have returned a whopping 1,764 kickoffs without scoring a touchdown.
Not only have they not returned a kickoff for a touchdown, the Bucs have averaged just 19.9 yards per kickoff return during their 30-year history.
Last season was no different. The Bucs struggled mightily on kickoff returns, averaging just 19.5 yards per return while going through five different return men – cornerback Torrie Cox, wide receivers Edell Shepherd and Mark Jones and running backs Earnest Graham and Michael Pitman.
Despite their challenges as a kickoff return team, the Bucs found a glimmer of hope toward the end of last season when running back Michael Pittman volunteered to help right the ship.
“I went to [special teams] Coach [Richard] Bisaccia about it and he passed it by Coach [Jon] Gruden to see if it was okay,” said Pittman. “I knew we were struggling in that area and I just asked him, “Hey, coach. Do you think I could try doing some kickoff returns? You know I just want to touch the ball, man, and help the team win in whatever way I can.’ He said,’ Okay, let me talk to Coach Gruden about it.’ He was very excited about it. He said Coach Gruden gave him the green light to do it and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.’ I was very excited about it. The rest is history.”
Well, he didn’t quite make history, but Pittman certainly proved to be an improvement. He returned three kickoffs for 85 yards (28.3 avg.), including a team-high 37-yard return in Week 17 against the New Orleans Saints.
So, why was Pittman able to have success returning kickoffs when some of his teammates struggled mightily in that area? Pittman attributes his ability to return kickoffs to his experience and instincts as a running back.
“There won’t be any dancing back there with me,” said Pittman. “I’m going to get back there and run for the end zone. For a running back like myself, we can take it a little aggressive and we’ll hit that hole full speed. As a running back, you can see the little holes that open up and that you have to hit. A receiver or a defensive back probably won’t take the hole that a running back like myself would because we have great vision as running backs. If you see a little crease, you are going to take that crease. When you saw me playing the few weeks before the season was over there was no stutter stepping with me. I ran straight downhill looking for a crack that I could find and take it all the way.”
If history is any indication of what’s to come, Pittman could have a lot of success as Tampa Bay’s kickoff returner this season. After all, former Bucs RB Aaron Stecker holds the record for the longest kickoff return in franchise history with an 86-yard return against the Saints in 2001.
Pittman, who had returned six career kickoffs (23-yard average) before the 2005 season, was quick to remind people that returning kickoffs for touchdowns was the exception and not the norm.
“Yeah, it’s very difficult,” Pittman said. “A lot of people see it on T.V. and they think it’s so easy, but you know, as a kickoff returner, you have to have your head on a swivel. You know everybody is coming at you full speed. You know 11 guys are coming at you full speed, and you have to see a block here, see a block there, read a block here and see another block here.. You have to read the blocks while going full speed at the same time. But at the same time, it’s fun. It’s something different. I haven’t done this since 1998, really, my rookie year. I’m about going back out there and having a good time doing it. My goal is to be the leader in NFL average on kickoff returns, and maybe I can go to the Pro Bowl as a kickoff returner. I don’t know, but I’m looking to have a lot of fun this year doing it.”
No one ever said returning kickoffs for touchdowns was easy, but some players have made it look that way over the past several seasons, which in turn has made Tampa Bay’s dreadful streak look even worse.
In 2002, New Orleans Michael Lewis returned two kickoffs for a touchdown, and he’s accomplished that feat a total of three times during his five-year career.
Kansas City WR Dante Hall has returned six kickoffs for touchdowns during his six-year career, which averages out to one per season.
Last season, Houston’s Jerome Mathis returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. In fact, 10 different players returned at least one kickoff for a touchdown in 2005.
Tampa Bay’s kickoff return unit never really sniffed the end zone last year. Before Pittman had taken over in Week 17, the Bucs’ longest kickoff return was 30 yards.
While he would like to be the one to finally return a kickoff for a touchdown, Pittman said it’s more important for him to establish good starting field position for the 23rd-ranked Bucs offense, which had the fourth-worst average starting field position (25.5 yard line) in the league in 2005.
“We can open our playbook a lot and make it that much bigger when we have good starting field position,” said Pittman. “A lot of times last year you saw our offense start on the one, two or three-yard line, or the five- or 10-yard line. We had to run the ball a lot in those situations even when Coach Gruden probably wanted to pass. If I get the ball to the 30-yard line and beyond, we can pass, run and we can play-action pass. We can do a lot of different things as an offense, and that’s so key. Of course I want to break a big one and return a kickoff for a touchdown and get the crowd excited, but it’s really all about field position. I’m going to do my best to get us the best starting field position possible this year, and hopefully I’ll score a touchdown or two in the process.”
Although he hasn’t officially won the kickoff return job, Pittman is the leading candidate. He’s also expected to be a solid contributor on offense again this season after rushing for 436 yards (6.1 avg.), catching 36 passes for 300 yards and scoring two touchdowns in 2005.
But with second-year RB Cadillac Williams expected to become a more complete back this season, Pittman’s playing time on third downs and/or in passing situations could be limited this year.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Pittman, who suggested fresh legs could go a long way in his attempt to return kickoffs for the Bucs this season.
“That’s going to help,” Pittman said of having fresh legs. “My longest run last season came right after I had returned a kickoff for like 30 yards. On the next play I broke off a 64-yard run and I was just tired. I was gassed by the time I got near the end zone. But hey, it’s all about opportunities. I’ll be ready to go.
“Coach Gruden knows I’ll always come into camp in shape. I play in shape. I’m just excited. If I get more carries this year, more kickoff returns or more catches – whatever I can do to help. I want to help the team win. I volunteered to go with kickoff returns last year. Hey, if I’m winded and I need to go back out on offense, I’m going to do it. If they call my number I’m going to get in there and do the best I can.”
If Tampa Bay is going to improve its starting field position and finally return a kickoff for a touchdown, the stars will have to align. A humble Pittman wisely pointed out the fact that it will take a team effort to make that goal a reality.
“Well, everybody has got to be on their blocks,” said Pittman. “I’m not going to say you have to get lucky. We just have to execute our plan. There were a couple of times last year when I was really close. We were just so close and it’s just that one block. Maybe we get all our blocks to happen this year. My goal is to run one back, or run more than one back, for a touchdown. I just want to do the best that I can. I think a lot of people are excited for me this year, and as a kickoff return unit, we are excited. Hopefully together, we’ll end that streak.”
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