During the Super Bowl LI last night, the FOX commentators mentioned that a punt has never been returned for a touchdown during a Super Bowl. My first thought was of Desmond Howard in Super Bowl XXXI, but my wife reminded me that that was a kickoff return, not a punt return. (She was absolutely right, as usual.) That 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown helped earn Howard the Super Bowl MVP that year. It turns out that a Super Bowl kickoff return score has happened at least one more time, during Super Bowl XLVII (for 108 yards!).

But that got me wondering: Which happens more often: a kickoff return for a touchdown, or a punt return for a touchdown? And why?

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    Don't tell me you forgot about Devin Hester so soon also? I'd rather forget the rest of that game, but for the first ten seconds or so...
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 17:04
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    @Joe Of course! Although, Devin Hester's return was only a measly 92-yards. :) Anyway, it's been done a few times during a Super Bowl, which is why I was surprised to hear that a punt return had never been returned for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Feb 6 '17 at 17:09
  • With only 52 superbowls, it's not too shocking to me that some things have never happened (no overtimes prior to this year, after all)... especially with presumably better-coached teams, and the higher incentive to kick away from Devin Hester and his ilk.
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 17:11
  • @Joe My surprise came from my assumption that scoring punt returns would be more common: I had guessed that games have more punts than kickoffs (I don't know if this is true), and punts are usually caught with better field position than kickoffs are. Feb 6 '17 at 17:19
  • I think field position is nearly irrelevant; most of the time the punt returner is the fastest player on the field, so the only question is can he get past the initial kick location. As long as it's not a punt from the end zone or close to it, the difference between a 98 yard punt return for a TD and a 58 yard punt return for a TD is pretty minimal.
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 17:29

I charted the KRs and PRs returned for a touchdown since 1994 (the complete play by play era of PFR). This data is lightly edited to remove inaccuracies due to issues in the PFR system.1 This includes all games, both regular season and playoff, so slightly higher numbers than Ed's which are only regular season as far as I can tell.

As you can see, prior to 2010 the KR and PR seemed to be similar in number; sometimes kicks (blue) and sometimes punts (red) are higher in total for that season. However, after 2010 only one season (2012) had a number of kicks returned for touchdowns greater than 10.

Chart of KRs and PRs from PFR, 1994-2016

Here is a second chart; the same data as above, but smoothed using an Exponential Weighted Moving Average. This weights nearer years higher; I used an 0.3 decay exponent, which I found recommended by one of the developers of my software.

This is a bit more interesting. Here you see for most years a similar level; there is a bit of a dropoff around 1999 that is either due to the flakiness of 1999 data or an actual year with few kick returns for touchdowns. Beyond that, you see very similar numbers until 2010's drops start being accounted for in the moving average and the blue bars drop off dramatically.

EWMA version of same chart

This data is still fairly flaky; I in particular am concerned about the 1999 blip, which while I can't see any evidence of it being wrong is ... strange. Only two valid KR-TDs seems to me to be very odd compared to the other seasons (no other season in that era under 8, and none even post-2010 under 6). (There should probably be a third included, though I can't see a legitimate data-driven way to include it without reviewing every single return; the Music City Miracle is not included as PFR lists it as a 1 yard kick return.)

Either way, I would caution against using only recent data if you're trying to evaluate the Super Bowl history of kick returns; since post-2010 the number of touchbacks rose so dramatically, the return numbers dropped in concert for kickoffs, while punts have had no significant rule changes in recent years.

Punts are also very vulnerable to individuals bumping the numbers significantly with 2+ returns in a season: note the spike in 2002-03, the longer crest in 2006-2008 and return in 2011, for example. This may have some impact on the Super Bowl, as punt returners can be kicked away from, but kick returners cannot.

1 Specifically, I try to account for fumbles and other returns that are not of the conventional sort. For kicks I attempt to remove onside kicks returned for touchdowns by either team and fumbled kicks returned by the kicking team; for punts I attempt to remove muffed or fumbled punts returned by the kicking team and blocked punts returned by the receiving team.

I remove any KR that is under 60 yards in total distance, or any return that includes "fumble" in the text (though none do with >60 KRYds).

I remove any PR that is from a punt under 20 yards or any punt return that is under 30 yards but has a number in the PRYds field (as the entire 1998 season has no numbers for some reason), or any punt whose play by play includes 'fumble' or 'muff' and yields less than 30 PRYds (I checked by hand, none of the 1998 punts were caught by this).

This ultimately removes 19 KRTDs and 21 PRTDs from the data.

  • Hmmmm, I'll take a look. That's odd in my opinion (to have a minimum for a counting stat)...
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 18:30
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    I does look like you may be right, though the numbers are a bit hard to measure exactly. If we limit to 1994-present (the "good data" era at PFR), it's much more nuanced.
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 18:52
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    can you summarize how you pull such data down from PFR? Did you just use the play index and search one season at a time and put the data into Excel to make the graphs? Or is there somewhere I've missed to do the graphs/download the data better? Was hoping to use it to answer another question, but extracting the data game by game is proving tedious. Thanks Feb 7 '17 at 0:22
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    @JeopardyTempest I used the Game Play Finder, specifically the query "From 1994 to 2016, any team vs. any team, play type is kickoff, on kickoff down, did not result in a turnover, resulted in a touchdown" for kickoffs, and similar for punts. I then downloaded the data and used SAS to make the chart (I'm a professional SAS programmer, so I used what I had at hand, but you could use R or even Excel, though the latter is of course less powerful).
    – Joe
    Feb 7 '17 at 15:10
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    I think their PBP data just isn't super great. The tables you looked at isn't coming from PBP data, it's coming from box scores presumably - which are much easier to parse and integrate. Football PBP data is hard.
    – Joe
    Feb 7 '17 at 16:48

Let's go year-by-year the past several regular seasons:

2016: 10 TDs out of 1012 (0.988%) punt returns, 7 TDs out of 1036 (0.676%) kick returns

2015: 13 TDs out of 1138 (1.142%) punt returns, 7 TDs out of 1081 (0.648%) kick returns

2014: 13 TDs out of 1036 (1.255%) punt returns, 6 TDs out of 1226 (0.489%) kick returns

2013: 13 TDs out of 1094 (1.188%) punt returns, 7 TDs out of 1289 (0.543%) kick returns

2012: 18 TDs out of 1134 (1.587%) punt returns, 13 TDs out of 1395 (0.932%) kick returns

2011: 20 TDs out of 1174 (1.704%) punt returns, 9 TDs out of 1375 (0.655%) kick returns

2010: 13 TDs out of 1149 (1.1314186%) punt returns, 23 TDs out of 2033 (1.1313330%) kick returns

2009: 13 TDs out of 1182 (1.100%) punt returns, 18 TDs out of 2004 (0.898%) kick returns

2008: 16 TDs out of 1091 (1.467%) punt returns, 13 TDs out of 2114 (0.615%) kick returns

2007: 17 TDs out of 1122 (1.515%) punt returns, 25 TDs out of 2074 (1.205%) kick returns

2006: 15 TDs out of 1216 (1.234%) punt returns, 9 TDs out of 2037 (0.442%) kick returns

Consistently, over this sample size, punt returns yield more touchdowns than kick returns in number. One thing to consider, especially with the rule changes with kick returns over the seasons in this sample (namely, the elimination of "wedge" blocking (2009), kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 (2011) and touchbacks were moved up from the 20 to the 25 (2016)), is the number of opportunities for punt returns and kick returns. With this in mind, in 2010, the yield between punt returns and touchdowns vs. kick returns and touchdowns were almost identical in percentage.

Thus, from 2006-2016, taking into account rules changes to kick returns over this time frame, punt returns yield more touchdowns than kick returns at a consistently higher percentage.

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    You might note the significant inflection point at 2010-2011 (when they moved the kick up). Prior to that, KR/TDs were far more common (see my answer).
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 17:32
  • also worth noting: the difference between 'punts returned' and 'punts' (and 'kicks returned' and 'kicks').
    – Joe
    Feb 6 '17 at 17:34

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