Can Clifton Repeat?

There's no doubt that Clifton Smith provided one of the feel good stories of the 2008 NFL season for Buc's fans.  An undrafted free agent, he was largely expected to be just another NFL body.  After all, we had drafted return man extraordinaire Dexter Jackson in the 2nd round to take care of the return game.  To avoid any hyperbole and avoid a story we all know too well, Jackson didn't exactly pan out in year 1.  Clifton Smith soon won the job and by the end of the year, was lounging in Hawaii on the NFC Pro Bowl Roster.  He provided a spark to our return game and cemented the job as our punt/kick return man.

I want to put aside his crossover into the running game and look strictly at his return numbers.  More specifically, I wanted to look at how Pro Bowl return men have fared in the year after their Pro Bowl season to see if we can generate any type of expectations for Smith.  I looked at the Pro Bowl returners for 1999-2007 seasons, and threw Clifton in to showcase his numbers.  I took their return average for both kickoffs and punts (where available), return touchdowns (again for kickoffs and touchdowns) and compared them year over year to see how they fared.  I also looked their career arc (to date) and career numbers.  *Note* All players were kickoff return men, not all returned punts. 

A few facts before we dive in.  There were 18 available slots (9 seasons, one player from AFC and NFC respectively).  Of those 18 slots, 16 different players were represented (Dante Hall twice, Devin Hester twice).  The average age of the player was 25.3.  Of the 16 players, 6 are already out of the league.  In fact, all players out of the league were out within 3 years of them being named to the Pro Bowl.  Some names might seem familiar, but looking at production AFTER their Pro Bowl season, 4 players provided major contributions to their respective teams (Steve Smith - Pro Bowl WR, Dante Hall - repeated as Special Team Pro Bowler, Devin Hester - repeated as Special Teams Pro Bowler, Derrick Mason - still in league and #1 WR with Tenn/Bal).  Some of the other members had good careers, but they were in preceding years.  It's also too early to make any founded statement on Justin Miller (although he looks like he is on his way out) and Josh Cribbs.

Let's first look at the kickoff return data.  The data is set up with their Pro Bowl season average numbers, the year after their Pro Bowl season's data, career data and then change both year over year and Pro Bowl year as compared to their career average.


Year Player Avg Next Avg Career Avg Yr vs Yr Avg PB vs Career
2007 Joshua Cribbs 30.7 25.2 26.3 5.5 4.4
2007 Devin Hester 21.7 21.9 22.8 -0.2 -1.1
2006 Justin Miller 28.3 24 26.6 4.3 1.7
2006 Devin Hester 26.4 21.7 22.8 4.7 3.6
2005 Jerome Mathis 28.6 27.4 28.5 1.2 0.1
2005 Koren Robinson 26 21.1 24.6 4.9 1.4
2004 Terrence McGee 26.3 30.2 26.3 -3.9 0
2004 Allen Rossum 21.6 22.6 23.3 -1 -1.7
2003 Dante Hall 25.9 25.3 23.8 0.6 2.1
2003 Jerry Azumah 29 22 24.2 7 4.8
2002 Dante Hall 23.8 25.9 23.8 -2.1 0
2002 Michael Lewis 25.8 23.7 24.1 2.1 1.7
2001 Jermaine Lewis 24.7 20.9 21.8 3.8 2.9
2001 Steve Smith 25.6 22 24.2 3.6 1.4
2000 Derrick Mason 27 22 22.4 5 4.6
2000 Desmond Howard 24.6 25.4 22.2 -0.8 2.4
1999 Tremain Mack 27.1 20.7 24.5 6.4 2.6
1999 Glyn Milburn 23.4 23.3 24 0.1 -0.6

13 of the 18 represented season saw a decrease in return average, meaning only 5 increased their averages year over year.  This represents a pretty steep drop off for Pro Bowl players when looking at kickoff return data.  Of the Pro Bowl season, 15 of the 18 represented an average higher than their career average.  This would lead you to believe that their Pro Bowl seasons were indeed, "special" season.

Now on to the punt return data, which features the same info.  There are less players, as many did not return punts in their respective Pro Bowl years.

Year Player Avg TD Next Avg Career Avg Yr vs Yr  PB vs Career
2007 Joshua Cribbs 13.5 1 8.1 10.6 5.4 2.9
2007 Devin Hester 15.5 4 6.2 12 9.3 3.5
2006 Devin Hester 12.8 3 15.5 12 -2.7 0.8
2004 Allen Rossum 12.4 1 8.5 10.1 3.9 2.3
2003 Dante Hall 16.3 2 10.1 10.5 6.2 5.8
2002 Dante Hall 13.4 2 16.3 10.5 -2.9 2.9
2002 Michael Lewis 14.2 1 9.2 9.8 5 4.4
2001 Jermaine Lewis 12.4 0 7.8 11.1 4.6 1.3
2001 Steve Smith 10.7 1 8.5 9.3 2.2 1.4
2000 Derrick Mason 13 1 6.4 8.7 6.6 4.3
2000 Desmond Howard 14.7 1 9.1 11.9 5.6 2.8
1999 Glyn Milburn 11.5 54 8.6 9.8 2.9 1.7

The only two players to increase their average from one Pro Bowl season to the next were two players that repeated their Pro Bowl honors, Hall and Hester.  The rest all fell back down to Earth both in year over year numbers and Pro Bowl vs career numbers.

I wanted to post this data as a cautionary glimpse at how Pro Bowl kick returners fare after their Pro Bowl season.  There are may factors that contribute to the decline.  Special teams, particularly blockers see high turnover year after year.  It stands to reason that if you have a Pro Bowl season behind a stellar unit, and some of those pieces leave, your production has a chance to suffer.

Another few items that contribute are amount of opportunities.  Kicking away from certain players, kicking out of bounds, more hang time on punts equal less opportunities for players to shine.  A perfect example is Hester in the height of his 2007 season.  Coaches implored their kickers/punters to keep the ball away from him.  As he was able to field kicks, he displayed the speed and agility that opposing teams feared. 

Coming back to Clifton Smith, we have high hopes that he can continue a good run returning kicks.  Though the numbers don't tell the whole story, the precedent set for Smith is to see a stark fall off this year in return yards and scores as a return man.  Will he receive the same opportunities, or will teams kick away from him.  Will our special teams unit perform like they did last year, or will they have a letdown, leading to the decline in Smith's numbers.  I was pleasantly surprised with his success last year, but based on the factors listed above, as well as the look into the numbers, we should keep his 2008 in perspective when projecting future seasons.

(On a personal note, I'll be out of the country from Sunday the 21st to Sunday the 28th.  I'll be back in full force, hopefully, when i return.)


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