Yesterday we evaluated the kickers and punter from the 2012 season, and today we're going to take a deeper look at the return and coverage units for the Panthers. There's not a whole lot one can say about this area of the team since the Panthers don't have anyone who really stands out as either spectacular or horrible, but upon further investigation I discovered some interesting things about our return and coverage units last season.
Kickoff Returns vs. Kickoff Coverage
When Kealoha Pilares returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Lions in 2011, fans were excited about the possibility that he could do that on a consistent basis in 2012 and beyond. Unfortunately for those fans that didn't happen, and the kickoff return team as a whole was underwhelming for the entire season. Of course, fans in Carolina are used to underwhelming kickoff returns, as it's become the norm over the last decade.
The longest kickoff return for a Panthers player in 2012 was 35 yards by Armanti Edwards. Other than one return from Joe Adams, no one else made it past 30 yards for the whole year. Pretty crappy, huh? If you're curious about how the return men fared last season, please feel free to reference the chart below:
I know what you're thinking after looking at the chart. Yes, Sione Fua had a kickoff return last season. It was in the Tampa Bay game on November 18th, and it was a botched onside kick that went straight to him. I don't know about you guys, but to me that's a contender for play of the year. The fact that he got 9 yards out of it is an amazing feat, and it's certainly more than he did any other time he was on the field.
In case you're interested in the team totals in returns made vs. returns allowed, you can consult the chart below.
As hard as it is to believe, the Panthers did a better job at returning kickoffs than their opponents in 2012. Kickoff coverage has typically been an area of concern for the Panthers, but only allowing 18.9 yards per kick isn't too shabby. Before looking at the numbers I would have never guessed that the Panthers averaged more yards per return than they allowed, so seeing that was a very nice surprise for me. The Panthers ranked 22nd in the league in average yards per return, so while they weren't the worst in the league they definitely have room to improve heading into 2013.
Overall the kickoff return and coverage units weren't anything to write home about, but on the other hand they weren't as horrible as they've been in years past. They weren't the direct cause of any lost games this season, so at least they have that to say about themselves. While they didn't directly screw anything up, they also didn't make that much of a positive impact over the course of the season, so I can't give them any bonus points for that.
Punt Returns vs. Punt Coverage
Many fans remember one thing about the return unit from 2012: the fact that Joe Adams fumbled the ball nearly every time he touched it, and no one else who was trusted enough to return punts did anything worthy of note until Armanti Edwards outran everyone on the Saints roster save one very speedy punter en route to a team-high and career best 69 yard return in the final game of the season.
Other than that one solitary play, nothing positive of note happened when Panthers' opponents punted the ball. In fact, other than Joe Adams fumbles, nothing happened at all in those situations. If you take a look at the chart below, you will see the return totals for the three punt returners the Panthers used in 2012.
It's not much to write home about, is it? Aside from Edwards' lone 69 yarder, the rest of the Panthers returns are almost embarrassing. The problem that Ron Rivera and staff have is they have to decide if they want to use one guy who can be the most dynamic return man in the league but has a tendency to put the ball on the ground, or if they want to use one of two men who don't make any spectacular plays but also don't screw up all too often.
If you're a coach, you shouldn't have to make a choice between something safe and average or dangerous and dynamic. You should just be able to plug a guy in the lineup and expect him to make plays, and unfortunately the Panthers don't have that luxury at the present time.
Whether it's the return men's fault or the lack of proper blocking is a debate in and of itself, and that's not really the goal here, because who's to blame has no bearing on the fact that the numbers show the Panthers need to improve in the area of punt returns. In 2012 they ranked 14th in the league, which isn't bad, but it's not as good as it could be.
One area the Panthers were surprisingly good in was punt coverage. If you take a look at the chart below you can compare the Panthers returns vs. their opponents' returns to get an idea of how they fared when the punt unit was on the field.
There is one thing that must be noted about the opponents' 76 yard touchdown return. If you recall, that was the Trindon Holliday return in the Denver game that shouldn't have counted as a touchdown. Now, that doesn't excuse the horrible coverage on that play, but the fact still remains that Holliday dropped the ball before he crossed the goal line, and the proper call should have been a fumble/touchback, but we all know how the "proper call" seems to always go against the Panthers.
Even with that long return being counted in the total, the Panthers still did better than their opponents at returning punts. That's amazing to me, because I've always thought the Panthers were one of the worst punt return teams in the league. I guess there's something to be said about that punter of theirs after all...
It's hard to give the Panthers a good grade here, because even though Armanti Edwards brought some excitement to the fan base when he almost scored a touchdown, the return and coverage units didn't do anything worthy of remembrance in 2012. They weren't terrible, but they weren't great either. Just like the kick return/coverage units, they didn't directly cost any games (though one could argue that Joe Adams' fumbling helped seal the coffin against the Giants), but they also didn't win any.
And that concludes the special teams review for the 2012 season. Hopefully the Panthers can find solutions to the problems that have plagued them for several years in the offseason, and hopefully the 2013 review will be much more enjoyable to read and write. One can only hope, am I right?