Extra Points: Cordarrelle Patterson Is the GOAT Kickoff Returner, Jeff Saturday Keeps Impressing, Tony Pollard Is a Star, and the Detroit Lions Are Frisky

We provide an NFL Week 11 recap, including talk on Cordarrelle Patterson's place among kick returners, Jeff Saturday's progress, and Tony Pollard.

NFL Week 11 still hasn’t clarified the playoff picture for most of the league, as teams that had the ability to secure the divisional win largely disappointed while those just outside of the playoff hunt pushed their way back in.

That made for some exciting results and good football, but it did make it harder to get a good idea of what’s happening across the NFL.

NFL Week 11 Recap

Across the NFL, we saw teams that people had left behind do great things, even if they didn’t always win. The Colts forced the Eagles into a fourth-quarter comeback in a 17-16 loss, the Commanders dominated the Texans 23-10, the Browns pushed the Bills to panic in their 31-23 loss, and the Bears put together a great game against the Falcons despite losing 27-24.

Some of the key takeaways, therefore, aren’t how the playoff races have been impacted by the games this weekend, but some of the individual accomplishments or team-level progressions we’ve seen throughout the week.

Cordarrelle Patterson Might Be the Best Kickoff Returner of All Time

The real story of the Bears-Falcons game is probably the continued progression of Justin Fields, who has done an excellent job improving as a pure passer along with maturing as a decision-maker on when to pull the trigger on scrambles. But it’s hard to ignore the Cordarrelle Patterson kickoff-return touchdown, another one to add to his impressive total.

With nine kickoff-return touchdowns, Patterson has sole possession of the career lead in the statistic. His performance also added to his impressive yardage average, moving it up to 29.6 yards per return – second all time behind just Gale Sayers and one of only two players in the top eight to have returned kicks after 1971.

The fact that Patterson has done this in a league environment that has discouraged kick returns is even more impressive. The peculiarities of the statistic demand a little more context. There have been significant changes in the rules that govern kick returns and not much adjustment made for them statistically.

Returns have fluctuated in frequency and effectiveness, as the NFL has outlawed certain kinds of blocks, put better athletes on special teams, and changed the kick distance and touchback yardage.

With this in mind, I created a list of the top kick returners by their total yards above the NFL average. Every season, I took each kick returner’s return yardage, subtracted each kick from the NFL average kick return that season, then multiplied that against the number of kick returns they fielded that year to get a “yardage over expectation.”

Total that up, and you get a rough value-added measure that accounts for average performance, volume, and league environment. Below are the top 15 performers in total yardage above expectation, along with a few other notable kick-return artists.

Note: To see the seasons recorded, number of returns, and total yards, click on the + sign to the left of the player’s name.

PlayerSeasonsReturnsYardsAvgExpectedAvg ov ExpTotal ov Exp
Cordarrelle Patterson2013-2022264781129.622.86.81790.5
Mel Gray (1986)1986-19964121005724.420.24.21742.8
Josh Cribbs2005-20144261111326.122.93.21375.6
Brian Mitchell1990-20036071401423.121.31.81092.1
Abe Woodson1958-1965193553828.723.15.61082.4
Michael Bates1993-2003373911024.421.62.81062.8
Glyn Milburn1993-2000401963624.021.72.3937.1
Tyrone Hughes1993-1998283699924.721.43.3934.7
Andre Roberts2010-2021260675126.022.53.5904.8
Leon Washington2007-2014286747426.123.03.1887.0
Terrence McGee2004-2007195519826.722.34.4854.7
Ron Smith1966-1974274690525.222.32.9799.2
Darren Sproles2005-2018332835225.222.82.4792.1
Gale Sayers1965-196991278130.622.28.3758.9
Dante Hall2000-20084261013623.822.01.7743.8
Lynn Chandnois1950-195492272029.622.57.1648.9
Jerome Mathis2005-200772205428.522.46.2443.8
Buddy Young1947-1954116324328.021.96.0701.7
Monk Gafford1946-194855146926.720.76.0331.9
Raymond Clayborn1977-197855150527.421.46.0328.7
Joe McKnight2011-201273214529.423.75.7417.4
Clifton Smith2008-200967189428.322.75.5371.0
David Reed2010-201363174027.623.14.5282.1
Richard Goodman2011-201252143327.623.73.9200.5
Travis Williams1967-1971102280127.522.15.4547.1
Allen Rossum1998-20085061177923.322.01.3649.8
Desmond Howard1992-2002359795922.221.60.6220.9
Kevin Williams (1993)1993-2000333753922.621.51.1372.7
Devin Hester2006-2016295733324.923.11.7512.7
Ted Ginn Jr.2007-2016307689922.522.8-0.4-110.4

In total yardage over expectation, the only returner to come close is Mel Gray. In average yards over expectation, only two returners beat out Patterson — Sayers and Lynn Chandnois.

The only returner in the past 50 years to come close in average yardage over expectation is Jerome Mathis, and nobody with at least 80 kickoff returns in the last 50 years comes close. The nearest is Pacman Jones, with 4.4 yards added over expectation per return.

There’s something to be said about the fact that Patterson can only be approached in this measure by historical returners, with no recent players who have a hefty kick-return total getting close to his average value.

The difference between the best and the worst kick returners in previous eras of football was much larger. The fact that there were fewer teams with a smaller talent pool made it a bit easier for the top kick returners to stand out. Now, with a league that has more parity across all types of play and more special teams’ expertise to go around, Patterson stands alone as an elite kickoff specialist.

This isn’t a perfect measure — it doesn’t account for kickoffs where teams forced returns by kicking short with long hangtime or kicked away from the kicker to set up great field position but prevent a touchdown.

An average field position on kickoffs measure would be better but is only possible with recent data. For what it’s worth, Patterson does do well in that measure, placing behind Josh Cribbs in total field position value added since 2001 and only behind Terrence McGee, Joe McKnight, and Jacoby Jones in average field position value added per team kickoff.

When kick returners are dying, it’s nice to see the last moments of the last great kickoff returner — one that might be the best of all time.

It’s the End of Brownsbills Day Now That Both Teams Can Be Good

The Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills used to carry such a reputation for ineptness that when they played each other, we would call it Brownsbills Day in a celebration of their inability to string together wins. Instead, Sunday’s 31-23 Buffalo win was a demonstration that both teams are beyond their struggling past.

While the Browns aren’t where they want to be at this point in the season and the Bills are falling short of expectations, those expectations have changed from where they were nearly a decade ago. Buffalo is a Super Bowl contender, and Cleveland is close to returning their MVP-quality quarterback to the field, which could set them up for a run next year.

The Bills, favored in this matchup, needed a win to maintain their lead in the AFC East and to stem the emerging losing streak. But their approach was unusual and included an offensive game plan that, for whatever reason, did not result in any targets to Stefon Diggs until there were 18 seconds left in the first half.

They were right to eventually focus on running the ball, given the Browns’ difficulties stopping opposing running backs. But they still strayed too far away from their best receivers.

MORE: Week 12 NFL Power Rankings

Buffalo’s defense didn’t play poorly in the first half, only giving up 10 points despite an offense that kept giving the ball back to Cleveland. The defense stepped up even more in the second half, only giving up meaningless touchdowns as the clock wound down.

The fact that the Bills couldn’t convert in the red zone and made all of their points through field goals tells us that there’s more to unlock with the team and some serious questions about why the team hasn’t unlocked it yet.

Buffalo isn’t at full strength yet on offense for whatever reason. If they get there, they’re favorites for a Super Bowl run, but right now, they can’t seem to connect all the dots. Defensively, they’re ready to rumble.

On the other side of the ball, it really looks like the Browns are ready to take off with the right quarterback. They’ll probably get that guy in a few weeks, even if it’s too late to use Deshaun Watson to mount a serious campaign for a playoff push. Next year, Cleveland should be deadly, and this game demonstrated some of the reasons why.

Jeff Saturday Is Making Fools of Us All

The Colts are seemingly for real, and it’s worth thinking about what it means to harp on qualifications for a new head coach. Certainly, if they keep this up, I’ll have some harsh words for myself, given my thoughts on the matter.

The Eagles are nothing like the Raiders, and despite their loss against Washington last Monday, falling short means a lot for a Colts team that was dwelling in the cellar.

Certainly, this tells us a lot about the coaching capability of Frank Reich, but it tells us more about Jeff Saturday. We’ll see if Indianapolis can keep this up, or if it’s just a temporary boost that comes from a new environment. But Saturday certainly has our attention.

The AFC East Is Impossible To Predict

The AFC East is truly wide open, which is a surprising development for nearly everyone. It’s conceivable to see any of the four teams win the division title. This race could go until Week 18, and we found an even muddier scenario develop after the Patriots beat the Jets with the first punt-return touchdown for any team this season, which just so happened to be a near walk-off play.

Now, two teams are 7-3 and two are 6-4. The Patriots have three games against the top two teams in the division and the Jets have two.

MORE: Robert Saleh Owes It to New York Jets’ Locker Room To Bench Zach Wilson

The only team with a losing record within the division at the moment is Buffalo, so if they drop some of these upcoming divisional games against New England and New York, they could be on the outside facing in when it comes to seeding.

It’s certainly strange that the divisions that might send the most teams to the playoffs are the East divisions when many expected them to be the West divisions.

Tony Pollard Deserves More From the Cowboys

After Ezekiel Elliott returned to the lineup, the Dallas Cowboys had the opportunity to really show off what a 1-2 punch could do. And they did, eviscerating the Minnesota Vikings 40-3. But the score only slightly overshadows the incredible game that Tony Pollard had.

In 15 carries and 19 pass routes, Pollard generated 189 yards and two touchdowns. Elliott contributed two touchdowns on the ground as well, finishing off Pollard drives. But the headache Pollard gave the Vikings was substantially larger than any difficulties Elliott posed to Minnesota.

Pollard averaged 5.3 yards per attempt on the ground and 18.2 yards per target. He had three carries of 15+ yards, and four of his catches earned a first down.

More interestingly, Pollard worked his magic aligned from nearly every position. He earned receptions when lined up out wide, in the slot, and from the backfield. He helped Prescott force the defense to declare their coverage and stretched out the defense in ways that ruined run fits and blitz calls.

Elliott is a better pass protector, which is a more valuable skill to have than rushing or receiving, historically. But the specific receiving upside that Pollard provides is unique, so long-term averages may not apply here.

There are stamina-related reasons the Cowboys have decided to limit Pollard’s snaps and touches, but it would behoove them to find his limit every game and push the team there as often as possible.

The Detroit Lions Might Have Something

After the Lions pulled together two wins in a row, it might have been safe to say that head coach Dan Campbell wasn’t really on the hot seat. But we might be in a different environment entirely for Campbell and the Lions after their 31-18 win over the New York Giants.

Detroit seems like a cohesive team now despite not having a quarterback they can count on. The defense is stringing together more consistent play than they did at the beginning of the season, though it does help that a team built solely around run defense happened to do well against a run-focused team like the Giants.

They didn’t do well against Justin Fields and the Bears, but emerged with a win and played alright down the stretch. The Lions also happened to hold the Packers to nine total points.

There might be something there for the Lions, who are 4-6 and technically in the Wild Card hunt.

Other NFL Week 11 Notes

  • Matthew Stafford is no longer a good quarterback, but he does an excellent job providing specific moments throughout every game that make you doubt that conclusion. The deep touchdown to Tutu Atwell is a great example of that. The key for the Los Angeles Rams, if they do decide to double down on being competitive next year, should keep that in mind. A team this committed to winning now should not have lost to the New Orleans Saints 27-20.
  • The Eagles seriously miss Jordan Davis. While Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph — long past their primes — can be reasonable backups to stem the bleeding, they can still be run on over the middle, and it shows.
  • It’s hard to know what to do when teams win ugly. The Baltimore Ravens should be more than 10 points better than the Carolina Panthers, who they controlled throughout their 13-3 win. However, Baltimore hasn’t been able to put together complete, clean games to demonstrate how good they can really be.
  • The Tennessee Titans’ 27-17 win over the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night told us more about the Packers than the Titans, but Tennessee is 7-3. No one is talking about them, but they could pose problems for other AFC contenders unable to deal with their physical running game.
  • I’m not sure Taylor Heinicke is exactly a starting-quality quarterback, but he’s had some exciting moments. This time, a 23-10 Washington Commanders win over the Houston Texans did result in a vindication for Heinicke’s level of play. Still, one of the first throws was a dropped pick. He’s not perfect.
  • The Las Vegas Raiders’ 22-16 win over the Denver Broncos is damning for the Broncos. We got to see more Davante Adams usage, and he now ranks fourth in receiving yards per game despite his rough start. Yet, this was largely an indictment of Denver’s investment in Russell Wilson, who still has issues throwing to every area of the field regardless of who’s calling plays.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals’ 37-30 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers showcased what Joe Burrow can do without Ja’Marr Chase. T.J. Watt’s return to the lineup was devastating to Burrow’s protection, but the Bengals’ QB nevertheless found ways to score with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, who did a good job turning around a difficult first half for him.
  • Zach Wilson is bad at football. After 20 starts without progress – Justin Fields turned it around a few starts prior to No. 20 and Josh Allen had an incredible leap in Year 2. It might be time to have a discussion about moving on.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs’ last-minute win over the Los Angeles Chargers, a 30-27 heartstopper, was why football is so popular. These kinds of games demonstrate the very best the NFL has to offer, and it was a pain to lack these games early in the season. Now we’re getting much more of them, and we saw some incredible Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert throws along the way.
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