2008: Johnnie Lee Higgins - 3 punt return TDs, led Raiders with 4 receiving TDs.
2007: Nate Burleson - 1 punt return TD, 1 kickoff return TD, led Seahawks with 9 receiving TDs.
2003: Brian Westbrook - 2 punt return TDs., led Eagles with 4 receiving TDs.
2002: Steve Smith - 2 punt return TDs, led Panthers with 872 receiving yards.
2001: Troy Brown - 2 punt return TDs, led Patriots in receptions, yards, and TDs with 101/1199/5.
1998: Joey Galloway - 2 punt return TDs, led Seahawks in receptions, yards, and TDs with 65/1047/10.
1998: Jermaine Lewis - 2 punt return TDs, led Ravens in receiving yards and TDs with 784/6.
1996: Eddie Kennison - 2 punt return TDs, led the Rams in receiving TDs with 9.
If I didn't list a year, it's because nobody met the criteria that year. Off the bat, we can ignore Brian Westbrook because he’s a RB, not a WR. Out of the remaining players, only Steve Smith and Joey Galloway had multiple 1,000 yard receiving seasons and only Steve Smith made multiple Pro Bowls as a receiver. Let’s call those 2 players both game-changing returners and game-changing receivers. That’s 2 players in the past 15 years that have been both.
Complicating the analysis are the following notable players:
-Santana Moss returned 2 punts for TDs in 2002 (his second season) and later on had 3 1000-yard seasons.
-Randy Moss returned 1 punt and 1 kick for TDs in 2003. He’s arguably a first-round Hall-of-Famer.
-1996 Rookie Amani Toomer had 2 punt return TDs and was #1 quality for the Giants later in his career with 5 straight 1000-yard receiving seasons.
-1994 Robert Brooks of the Packers had multiple return TDs and eventually had 2 1000-yard receiving seasons.
These players were arguably game-changing returners earlier in their careers and became game-changing receivers later on in their careers.
So what conclusions can we draw from this? This is what I can come up with:
1. Coaches do not let their game-changing wide receivers return kicks and punts, even if they are game-changing returners as well.
This is obvious. With the exception of Randy Moss in 2003, all of the players I mentioned as both game-changing receivers and game-changing returners made the lion’s share of their multiple 1,000-yard seasons or Pro Bowls AFTER they had their multiple return TD seasons. This means that, potentially, many of the game-changing WRs out there would also be game-changing returners given the chance (I mean, who wouldn’t love to see Andre Johnson or Reggie Wayne returning kicks?)
2. Players with the body type to be great returners are generally not big enough to be great receivers.
This becomes clearer when you look at some of the WRs who consistently showed up as multiple return-TD scorers in the last 15 years. For example: Devin Hester (5’10”, 185), Tamarick Vanover (6’, 220), Dante Hall (5’8” 187), Josh Cribbs (6’1, 192), Desmond Howard (5’10, 185), Mel J. Gray (5’9”, 167) are/were all great returners, but not great receivers. Contrast this with the top receivers from that time: Randy Moss (6’4”, 215), Larry Fitzgerald (6’3”, 225), Isaac Bruce (6’, 188), Jerry Rice (6’2”, 200), Michael Irvin (6’2”, 207), Terrell Owens, (6’3”, 226), Tim Brown (6’, 195), and Marvin Harrison (6’, 175). For the most part, the great returners are under 6’ and under 200 lbs (biggest exception being Tamarick Vanover) and the great receivers, regardless of weight, are at least 6’ tall. This suggests that Steve Smith (5’9”, 185) is the exception, not the rule.
3. Ted Ginn-related conclusions
Ted Ginn is not a game-changing receiver. This isn’t a shocker. Statistically, at 5’11”, 178, he does not have the size to be a game-changing receiver. To anyone who has watched him drop passes over and over again the last few years, this is no revelation. However, he is the perfect size for a game-changing returner. Thus, I wouldn’t advocate cutting him from the roster completely this offseason unless his salary makes it absolutely necessary.
More interesting to me is that Coach Sparano and staff have continued to let Ginn return kicks. Since it seems that, in the last 15 years, coaches do not want their great receivers returning kicks, this shows that the Dolphins do not see Ginn as a #1 receiver. Again, this may be obvious by the fact that Ginn didn’t start this last game. However, the benching can be seen as a motivational ploy. A willingness to expose Ginn to injury by allowing him to return kicks cannot be explained as anything other than a realization that Ginn is not going to be a game-changing receiver. Look for the Dolphins to either sign a WR who fits the body type of the majority of great receivers (Brandon Marshall? Steve Breaston?) or to draft one in an early round (Brandon LaFell from LSU? Arrelious Benn from Illinois? Eric Decker from Minnesota?).
Finally, I have way too much time on my hands. And most importantly, GO DOLPHINS!!!