ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Trindon Holliday stands just 5-foot-5 and might tip the scales at 170 pounds if he wolfs down a big breakfast. Still, he figures he knows exactly how those big, beefy baseball sluggers must feel drawing intentional walks.
Holliday, the Denver Broncos' speedy kick returner, is flustered that he doesn't get the chance to showcase his skills all that much on kickoff returns, and he's not alone.
"You feel like it's time for you to spark your team and you get so anxious and you see the ball go over your head again and again and you get frustrated," said Holliday.
So, when the ball does land in his hands, even if it's very deep in the end zone, even if the wiser thing to do is take a knee, he wants desperately to bring it out.
"It might be the only one you get all day," Holliday said.
Holliday has six special teams return touchdowns in 29 career games, including playoffs, one every 4.8 games, which ranks him first in the league since the 1970 merger. But he hasn't scored since a 105-yard kickoff return against Philadelphia in September, a career-long drought of eight games.
Restless returners are as much a part of the NFL nowadays as the aerial fireworks show that light up the scoreboards every week.
"I don't like taking a knee because I'm a defense guy," said Chiefs returner Quintin Demps, a safety. "So, I'm probably mad because it means they scored, and if they scored a touchdown, I want to score. Yeah, it gets frustrating sometimes. We're all competitors. We want the ball in our hands and we want to make a play."
It's not always up to the kick returner. Sometimes his coach or a teammate is the one giving him the green or the red light.
Sometimes it doesn't work out and the returner is smothered before he can reach the 20-yard line. The elite ones, though, can still change a game.
It just doesn't happen as often as it used to.
For the first time in NFL history, more than half of all kickoffs could end up as touchbacks this season, three years after the league moved the kickoff up from the 30-yard line to the 35 to reduce the number of returns and, therefore, the number of concussions.
The league says its studies show head injuries on special teams plays have gone down as a result of the change and the data show a drastic rise in the number of footballs flying out of the back of the end zone and returners taking a knee rather than bringing it out.
According to STATS:
- The season is tracking at 1,285 returns, which would be the lowest since the expansion to 32 teams in 2002. Not surprisingly, 2011 (1,375) and '12 (1,395) have been the next two lowest. Prior to that, 2009 had the lowest number of returns, at 2,004.
- The touchback percentage is 49.4 percent. There's never been a season where more than half the kicks are touchbacks. Prior to '11, the highest percentage was in 1993, when 27 percent of kickoffs were downed.
- The average kickoff return is now 23.5 yards. Over 2011 and '12, that number was 22.2.
However, a big return just isn't what it used to be.
- The average starting position on kickoffs is now the 22-yard line. It was 26.8 in 2010, the year before the rule change.
For many teams, the risk/reward ratio for 2 extra yards just isn't worth it.
For teams with a dynamic returner, it is, but Chicago's Devin Hester, who has 19 return touchdowns in 124 career games, said he doesn't ever grow impatient and bring one out that he shouldn't.
"It's up to the coaches at the end of the day," Hester said. "When I bring those out 8, 9 deep, Coach will tell me beforehand, 'No matter how deep it is, bring it out.' So, it's really not up to me."
Sometimes, it's actually up to the opponent.
"It's pretty frustrating because you are back there for pretty much nothing, unless they want you to return. It's all up to them," Giants kick returner Jerrel Jernigan said.
"You have to control yourself. If you get antsy and try to bring one out that is eight yards deep, the kickoff coverage is already down there, and it's probably going to get you inside the 15."
Twenty-one of the top 25 worst overall average starting field positions since 1991 have come after the 2011 rule change on kickoffs, according to STATS, including eight this season.
Vikings rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the league with a 33.3-yard kickoff return average and has two touchdown returns, said he's not bothered by kickoffs sailing over his head.
"Nah, it makes me feel good," he insisted. "It makes me feel like they're scared of me or they respect me back there."
And when they do end up in his hands, he's not about to take a knee.
"There's not one I catch that I don't feel like I can break," Patterson said. "Every time I catch one I feel like I'm housing it."