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Assessing the futility of the Jets’ return units

NFL: New York Jets at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of attention has been focused on how bad the Jets’ offense has been so far this season, along with discussion about how major personnel losses have impacted the defense.

As a result, the special teams unit hasn’t been getting a lot of attention so far. However, their performance has also been disappointing. This is especially true of the return units, which have a chance to be historically bad if things carry on the way they have been going.

Let’s first consider the kickoff return unit. A number of players have been cycled in and out of this role but the results have been poor no matter who has been in there.

The Jets have attempted to run back 14 kickoffs but have only managed to get past the 20-yard line on five of them with one of those five being called back due to a penalty so the Jets had to start from inside the 10. In fact, half were stopped inside the 15 with none of these being attributable to penalties.

The Jets are 31st in the league for kickoff return average at 16.6 yards per return with only Miami below them. However, Miami have only returned five kicks, which based on the above stats would probably have been a good approach. Also, Josh Malone broke a 40-yard return in the Colts game, without which the Jets would be in last place anyway.

Many players, including all four tight ends, have been guilty of making errors that have led to returns failing, but also the return men themselves have been guilty of running away from their blockers or failing to field the ball cleanly. Ty Johnson hasn’t had a chance to return one yet though, so he’ll probably get that opportunity next by default.

Against Denver, Brandon McManus had eight touchbacks and Malone didn’t get a single chance to return in his final appearance as a Jet. On reflection this was probably a bad idea from the Broncos.

How about the punt return unit though? Braxton Berrios was 2nd in the NFL in punt return average last season and the Jets were in the top 10 for punt return yardage as a team.

This year has been nothing like that as Berrios has returned just two punts for 20 yards. Although there are three teams who currently have less punt return yardage in 2020, that puts the Jets on pace to end up with less than the Packers’ league-worst 98 yards in 2019.

The problem has been that the Jets have had to take a fair catch so often because opposing gunners are routinely beating the Jets’ vices down the field. The team comfortably leads the league with 16 fair catches.

This may be a by-product of the Jets’ zone coverage-based defense. If cornerbacks are more used to dropping off the line and passing off downfield assignments then it may be less natural for them to try to disrupt and slow down someone trying to get downfield and then turn and stay with them.

All of the Jets’ vices have struggled in this role, even when they’ve employed their starting cornerbacks there, and their best punt return all year came as they dropped two other defensive backs deeper to bail out the vices once they’d been beaten. That hasn’t worked since, though.

If 16 fair catches in six games sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Jeremy Ross, himself an ex-Jet, holds the NFL record with 37 in a season, although Jeremy Kerley twice recorded 36 in a season with the Jets and set a record of his own by taking a fair catch on 65.4% of the punts he fielded in 2012.

Again, while Kerley earned himself a reputation for always doing this, it actually had more to do with poor blocking from the vices and he had much lower fair catch numbers in every other season.

Berrios could have a chance to challenge for Ross’s record if he carries on at this pace, although it’s worth noting that five of the Jets’ 16 fair catches came when Chris Hogan had replaced him for some reason. Berrios has fair caught 11 of 13 opportunities though, so he’s on target to obliterate Kerley’s percentage record.

Having a decent punt returner is a useful asset and Berrios appears to be that. However, that asset goes to waste if the blockers ahead of him cannot perform the most routine of tasks.

Clearly the Jets and their coaching staff have bigger fish to fry right now. However, it’s yet another example of the Jets actually having talent in certain areas that ends up going to waste because they aren’t put into a position to succeed.