Today's Tidbit... America Gave Return Kicks The Boot
Among the least remembered tactics in American football history is the return kick, which was little used for fifty or more years before the NCAA eliminated it in 1967. Primarily used on punt returns when teams had an effective punter as its return man, a return kick was legal whenever a player took possession of the ball on a kickoff, punt, fumble recovery, or interception and immediately punted the ball back to the team that just lost control of the ball. The idea of kicking the ball back to the opponent seems bizarre today, but the return kick fit the field position game played before the 1940s when teams averaged less than fourteen points per game. Like punting on first or second down, a well-timed and executed return kick could pin an opponent deep in their own territory.
A 1938 article about return kicks by a writer from New York City found that NYU's coach Mal Stevens return kicked on occasion, including his team return kicking the opening kickoff against Ohio State that year. Steve Owens, the Giants coach, liked return kicking, but neither of his return men that year were good punters, so he did not use it. Lou Little at Columbia thought return kicks were a poor strategy, arguing that a team cannot score without the ball.
Return kicks also saw use against teams that failed to keep a safety or two back after kicking or punting. Not only were those safety men the last line of defense against the punt return, but leaving them behind also allowed them to field the return kick. American football used the tactic sparingly, so when Babe Parilli went north of the border to play for Ottawa, he needed reminding of the Canadian propensity to return kick since Parilli was the team's quarterback, punter, and kicker.
Although today's NCAA rules outlaw the return kick, it remains alive and well in Canada, mainly due to the single or rouge. Canadian football rules award one point to the kicking team when a kickoff, missed field goal, or punt enters the end zone and is not run or return kicked out of the end zone by the receiving team. Depending on one's perspective, Canadian games periodically descend to infamy or rise to the glory of a series of return kicks as the teams punt the ball back and forth to score a point or avoid the same.
Here's an example of multiple return kicks in a 2017 CFL game between Montreal and Winnipeg.
And here's a similar exchange following a field goal attempt in a 2010 game between Montreal and Toronto.
While the single gives Canadian football a reason to retain the return kick, there was no compelling reason to eliminate it from American football other than it seldom saw use. It was not a dangerous play. It was simply unusual and was taken advantage of occasionally by well-prepared coaches and players. Perhaps the return kick will return someday, but I won't hold my breath while we wait.
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