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The NFL playoff race could be decided while you're taking a bathroom break

Special teams play is overlooked on most Sundays, but for the teams scrapping along and fighting for last few playoff seeds, it will be the deciding factor.

Special teams are probably the most overlooked and under-analyzed aspect of the game of football. These units often feature rookies and end-of-roster nobodies, the plays tend to happen during bathroom breaks, and for such an afterthought in the most popular sport in America, they sure seem to have major effects on games nearly every week. I guarantee you that a special teams play or two will have a major effect on playoff seeding and/or playoff games over the next two months.

Still, can you name the best special teams units in the NFL off the top of your head? You probably know the best offenses by heart. You can identify the best defenses easily. But, do you know which teams have the most effective and game-changing special teams units? Most likely not. With this in mind, I set out to take a look at which teams benefit most from their special teams units and which teams suffer the most because of their dismal performances in that area. I didn't have to look too far to find a couple of standouts.

I wanted to focus in on return teams for this project -- punt and kick returns and coverages. Philly's prowess in that area showed up conspicuously in their big win over New England last Sunday. The downtrodden Eagles, losers of their previous three games, used two key special teams plays -- a blocked punt that was scooped up and returned for a touchdown and a Darren Sproles punt return touchdown -- to beat the mighty Patriots, a game that very few gave the Eagles a chance of winning.

That loss dropped the Patriots to the third seed in the AFC and kept the Eagles in a three-way tie for the NFC East lead. Special teams play is already leaving its mark on the playoff picture.

Similarly, we all saw how crucial special teams play was in Washington's loss to Dallas, particularly when, with the game tied and going into the final two minutes, DeSean Jackson caught a punt and ran backwards about 50 yards* before fumbling it away to the Cowboys. This was described by many on my Twitter timeline as "the worst punt return ever" and I can't say it felt like hyperbole as it gift-wrapped the win for Dallas. That flub set up a wild finish to what had previously been an interminable slog fest of a game, and while it wouldn't ultimately spell doom for Washington -- Jackson would score a touchdown to tie the game back up -- it too was a great illustration that the third phase of football plays a huge part in games.

*Okay maybe I'm exaggerating but that's how it felt.

Those two highlight plays from this week, however, did feature two of the league's best special teams groups when it comes to the return game.

To the tables!

Just in terms of scoring points, you can see that Washington is tied for the league lead (albeit at just "2") in kick return touchdowns.

Table: Kick Return Touchdowns


Washington has gotten production on kick returns from Andre Roberts (seven returns for 231 yards, a 33.0 yard average), who has a 90-yard touchdown return on his resume this year. Their primary returner, Rashad Ross, has averaged 26.0 yards per return on 22 attempts, and ran one back for 101 yards back in Week 2 against the Giants. Ross, incidentally, also recovered a blocked a punt in the end zone for Washington in Week 6.

Washington is one of five teams this year to block a punt or field goal and score a touchdown.

Table: Other touchdown returns via blocked field goals or blocked punts


As pointed out above, the Eagles are one of the teams to score on a blocked punt as well. That's not the only area in which they excel though. They're the only team in the NFL with two punt return touchdowns, both courtesy of the ageless game changer Darren Sproles.

Table: Punt Return Touchdowns


Backing up a little bit, you notice the Vikings on both lists for kickoff return touchdowns and punt return touchdowns. Minnesota kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson leads all kick returners with 20-plus yard returns and has a 31.1 yard average with two touchdowns, including a long of 101 yards. That came this past week against the Seahawks. Punt returner Marcus Sherels has done his part with a 10.0 yard punt return average and a touchdown on 29 returns.

Dwayne Harris, who signed with the Giants after spending the 2014 season with the Cowboys, has averaged 28.1 yards per kick return with a 100-yard touchdown return against his old team, plus had a big 80-yard punt return touchdown against the Jets this week. He's one of only two players in the NFL this year with a punt and kick return touchdown to their name. The other is Seattle rookie Tyler Lockett, who has been a boon to the Seahawks' return game this year.

That said, while touchdowns on returns can be exciting and important, they are obviously pretty few and far between for most teams. A more accurate look at special teams effectiveness can be found by looking at average starting field position on both kickoffs and all drives. First up, here's the average starting field position following kickoffs, courtesy of Football Outsiders' drive stats.

Table: Average field position following kickoffs

CHIEFS 24.87 (1)
PACKERS 24.67 (2)
JETS 23.28 (3)
RAIDERS 23.27 (4)
VIKINGS 23.16 (5)
GIANTS 23.03 (6)
COLTS 23.02 (7)
COWBOYS 22.72 (8)
LIONS 22.67 (9)
RAVENS 22.66 (10)
EAGLES 22.37 (11)
PANTHERS 22.15 (12)
BENGALS 22.09 (13)
PATRIOTS 21.98 (14)
BILLS 21.79 (15)
SEAHAWKS 21.79 (15)
BEARS 21.76 (17)
WASHINGTON 21.68 (18)
BRONCOS 21.63 (19)
FALCONS 21.44 (20)
BUCCANEERS 21.22 (21)
TEXANS 21.14 (22)
STEELERS 21.11 (23)
CARDINALS 21.06 (24)
DOLPHINS 21.02 (25)
SAINTS 20.99 (26)
RAMS 20.90 (27)
JAGUARS 20.78 (28)
BROWNS 20.72 (29)
49ERS 20.63 (30)
TITANS 19.66 (31)
CHARGERS 19.47 (32)
Avg 21.85

As you can see, the Kansas City Chiefs are the leaders of the pack in kickoff return field position. Knile Davis (18 returns for 486 yards, 27.0 average) and D'Anthony Thomas (six returns for 138 yards, 23.0 average) have been the workhorses for the Chiefs this year in that area.

The Packers aren't far behind. Michah Hyde (eight returns for 187 yards, 23.4 average), Ty Montgomery (seven returns, 218 yards, 31.1 average) and Jeff Janis (six returns, 211 yards, 35.2 average) have shared the duties there.

The Jets come in third on that list with the help of Antonio Cromartie (10 returns for 273 yards, 27.3 average) and Zac Stacy (10 returns for 204 yards, 20.4 average).

Perhaps more telling in the field position game, though, is the average starting line of scrimmage for all drives (per Football Outsiders).

Table: Average starting LOS per drive

CHIEFS 32.01 (1)
PANTHERS 30.94 (3)
BENGALS 30.94 (2)
PATRIOTS 30.82 (4)
JETS 29.72 (5)
VIKINGS 29.02 (6)
BEARS 28.90 (7)
RAIDERS 28.83 (8)
CARDINALS 28.32 (9)
GIANTS 27.90 (10)
PACKERS 27.63 (11)
SEAHAWKS 27.62 (12)
RAMS 27.53 (13)
BUCCANEERS 27.47 (14)
RAVENS 27.25 (15)
BROWNS 27.09 (16)
TITANS 27.07 (17)
STEELERS 26.92 (18)
EAGLES 26.86 (19)
JAGUARS 26.71 (20)
WASHINGTON 26.68 (21)
COLTS 26.57 (22)
FALCONS 26.27 (23)
BILLS 26.06 (24)
SAINTS 26.03 (25)
BRONCOS 25.65 (26)
DOLPHINS 25.41 (27)
TEXANS 25.29 (28)
COWBOYS 24.55 (29)
LIONS 24.50 (30)
49ERS 22.33 (31)
CHARGERS 20.88 (32)
Avg 27.21

This obviously includes punt returns, so while average starting field position is a function of the offense and defense as well, it can give you a little bit better idea of how each team's special teams units are doing in establishing a good beachhead for their offense.

The Chiefs again lead the NFL in that regard, thanks in part to punt returner De'Anthony Thomas, who averages 7.8 yards per punt return on 29 attempts. The Panthers show up here partly due to the solid 9.7 yards per punt return average for Ted Ginn Jr. (10th among all returns with 15 attempts minimum). Cincinnati's Adam Jones (11.7 yard return average on 15 attempts) and New England's Danny Amendola (12.6 yards per return on 19 attempts) are strong in this area as well.

One more metric that Football Outsiders provides are their kick return and punt return ratings. These ratings are shown in points value above average.

Table: Kick return ratings per team

MIN 13.3
WAS 10.4
NYG 10
SEA 7.1
GB 5.3
DET 4.3
BAL 3.1
ARI 2.1
DAL 1.9
CHI 1.7
KC 1.3
TB 0.5
ATL 0.3
JAC 0.1
PHI -0.2
IND -0.6

So, as you can see above, (and as FO's Vincent Verhei told me), Patterson and the rest of the Vikings' kick return team have added nearly two touchdowns worth of value on kickoff returns, adjusted for where the ball was kicked and caught.

Washington, the Giants, the Seahawks and Packers all rate highly here.

The worst place team in this category (not shown) is Miami, who is currently at -9.2, meaning an average team would have gotten nearly a touchdown and field goal more than the Dolphins, based on the same kicks landing in the same spots.

Here's how FO rates the NFL's punt return teams.

Table: Punt return ratings per team

PHI 12.5
CLE 8.6
BAL 6.7
MIA 5.7
MIN 5.4
SEA 4.5
NYJ 3.4
ATL 3.3
NE 3
NYG 2.8
CIN 2.4
DEN 2.3
STL 2.2
JAC 1.5
CAR 1.2
PIT 0.3

The Eagles are again at the top, followed closely by the Browns, Ravens, Dolphins, Vikings, and Seahawks.

There are many factors that go into measuring the top special teams units, and I tried to take a closer look at a few of them. Now let's take a look at a few factors that highlight the worst special teams groups.

The Worst

No one's beating the Chargers when it comes to special teams inadequacy. Going into Week 12, San Diego had accumulated a grand total of ONE punt return yard and while they've racked up a whopping 37 yards since then, their inability to create anything in that area has certainly hurt their average starting field position all year (where they're dead last). They haven't been any better in the kick return game (dead last).

The 49ers haven't been a whole lot better, coming in 30th in average starting position after a kickoff and 31st in total average starting field position. I had thought that Jarryd Hayne was going to be a big factor for them here, but he only lasted with the team's active roster for six games. His replacement in Bruce Ellington has averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return while maintaining a 24.5 yard kickoff return average and just one 40-plus yard return.

A few others: Houston's longest punt return this year is 17 yards. Indianapolis' long of 22 yards isn't much better, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this hilarious debacle.

Here are Football Outsiders ratings on the league's worst kick and punt return teams.

Table: Kick return ratings per team

MIA -9.2
TEN -7
SF -6.2
OAK -5.6
SD -4.3
BUF -4.2
PIT -4.2
NYJ -4.2
HOU -2.3
DEN -2.1
CIN -2
CLE -1.9
NE -1.5
NO -1.4
CAR -1
STL -0.7

As pointed out above, the Dolphins are the worst in the NFL in kickoff returns, followed by the Titans and 49ers. Here's a look at the worst in the punt return game.

Table: Opponent punt return touchdowns

IND -8.1
HOU -7.3
BUF -6.4
DAL -5.9
SF -5.7
WAS -5.1
DET -5
GB -4.9
SD -4.2
ARI -3.2
OAK -3.1
CHI -2.5
KC -1.4
TB -0.7
NO 0.2

Unsurprisingly, the Colts and Texans show up on there at the top (for worst). The Bills, Cowboys, and 49ers are among the league's least effective punt return groups as well.

As for the raw numbers in giving up big plays, here's a quick glance:

Table: Opponent kick return touchdowns


The Bears lead the NFL in opponent kick return touchdowns (two), joined on that list by the Seahawks, Raiders, Giants, Cowboys, and Panthers.

Chicago, Seattle, and Carolina show up again on the punt return touchdowns list as well. Generally speaking, it's not great to be on both lists, though those teams have made up for it in other areas.



At the end of the day, it's tough to accurately rate special teams units as a whole because it's comprised of so many variables (kicking, punting, coverage, returns), and total yards in any of these categories can be deceiving. That said, in terms of the return teams -- punt returns, punt coverage, kickoffs, and kick returns -- you can glean some things using the stats outlined above.

Many of the biggest and most important matchups on the NFL's slate for the rest of the season will feature teams that are similarly built, similarly talented, or similarly ranked in many of the key offensive and defensive statistical groups. This will surely lead to some close games, and these close games often come down to field position and a big play here or there on special teams.

Will Kansas City, Green Bay, either of the New York teams, or any of the other playoff contenders really lean on their effective special teams units down the stretch? It's likely that the importance of these often overlooked groups will factor into the outcomes of big games over the next month.

For my money, the play on special teams will be especially key for a few standouts like Philly, Washington, Minnesota and the Seahawks down the stretch. In the NFC East in particular, where mediocrity rules and a losing record is still probably going to win you the division, even a slight edge like a superiority on special teams could make an enormous difference.

The Eagles' end-of-season stretch is a tough one, and features the Bills, Cardinals, Washington and the Giants, and those two games at the end could spell the difference in going home for the summer or heading to the postseason. With an incredibly dangerous weapon in Darren Sproles and a punt-and-kick blocking group on coverage teams, Philly stands out above the rest as the most likely team to benefit from this forgotten third phase of football.

I think Washington faces the same situation. The offense doesn't always click on all cylinders and even if it's a risk at times, DeSean Jackson has the ability to be a legitimate game-changer in the return game in the same way that Sproles has been. Watch these two teams' special teams units down the stretch.

Minnesota, too, will need to lean on their return teams as well in order to establish good field position for their offense. Teddy Bridgewater hasn't been outstanding of late and when the foundation of your offense is the running game, field position battles become more important. That's where former first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson can start living up to his draft status.

Special teams aren't as sexy as a high-octane offense or a punch-you-in-the-mouth defense, but they will be key down the stretch and into the playoffs.