It seems that the kick-off return is dying in the NFL. The league continues to look at ways of making the kick-off return safer which may end in the ultimate – the removal of that play from the game. Should the kick-off return go, then those men who have graced the play will also become a thing of the past. It therefore seemed like a good time to look at the top kick-off return men in Packers history.
I have specifically concentrated this article on kick-off return prowess and therefore not included punt return expertise – the top punt returners are for another day.
To qualify for this list, there was just a single criterion – a player must have returned 50 or more regular season kick-offs in his career for the Green Bay Packers (this criteria did lead to one very significant omission – but more on that later).
Let’s get started…
1. Travis Williams, 1967-70
The story of Travis Williams, the “Roadrunner”, is of a man whose star shone brightly but far too briefly. Williams is 2nd on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average – 26.7 yards per return - which also places him 7th on the NFL’s all-time list. He is Green Bay’s record holder for kick-off return touchdowns in a single-game (2), single-season (4) and career (5). Author of the greatest single season in kick-off returning in league history…in 1967, he returned 18 kick-offs for an incredible 41.06 yards per return which included 4 returns for touchdowns. The 41.06 average per return remains a single-season NFL record. Against the Browns that season he equalled the NFL record by returning 2 kick-offs for a touchdown in the same game. Williams had the potential to be one of the league’s top running backs but a knee injury slowed and then curtailed his career. Williams passed away at the tragic early age of 45 and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1997. He will always be the “Roadrunner”.
2. Dave Hampton, Packers 1969-71
Dave Hampton is the Packers’ all-time leader in kick-off return average – 28.16 yards per return and 4th on the team’s all-time list for kick-off return yardage (2,084). Played just 3 years in Green Bay (1969-71), but returned a kick-off for a touchdown in each of those seasons – those 3 touchdowns putting Hampton in 2nd place in team history (behind Travis Williams). The 1970 return for a touchdown was 101 yards (equal 5th longest in team history).
His best season for the Packers was 1971 when he led the NFL in kick-off returns and kick-off return yardage. But it wasn’t enough to keep him in Green Bay and Hampton was traded to Atlanta in 1972 where his career as a running back took off. It’s impossible to mention Hampton without giving a reference to him having the bizarre 'distinction' in 1972 of surpassing the 1,000 yard rushing mark and then losing it again when he had a 6 yard loss on the following play (finishing the season on 995 yards).
3. Al Carmichael, Packers 1953-58
Al Carmichael was the Packers 1st Round Draft pick in 1953 as running back but found his true niche with the Packers returning kick-offs. Carmichael is 2nd on the Packers all-time list for number of kick-off returns (153) and kick-off return yardage (3,907 yards). He is 7th on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average (25.5 yards per return). Had two 100+ yard kick-off returns for touchdowns in his Packers career (Roell Preston being the only other Packer to do this), including the then longest in team history - 106 yards against the Bears in 1956…this is still the equal-10th longest play in the history of the NFL (and 2nd longest kick-off return in Packers history). Carmichael had three very fine consecutive seasons returning kicks for the Packers from 1955 to 1957. In 1955, he led the league in kick-off return average (29.9 yards per return, 4th highest in team history). In 1956 Carmichael led the NFL in kick-off returns and kick-off return yardage and then in 1957 he again led the league in kick-off return yardage. After the 1958 season, Carmichael went on to finish his career in the fledgling AFL with the Denver Broncos (1960-61). Inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1974.
4. Herb Adderley, Packers 1961-69
Drafted by the Packers in the 1st round (12th overall) as a running back, Herb Adderley became one of the greatest cornerbacks in the history of the NFL. But because of his skills in the defensive backfield, his expertise as a kick-off return man can be easily overlooked. Sharing duty with Tom Moore for most of the early 1960s, Adderley is 3rd on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return yardage (3,080 yards) and 6th on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average (25.7 yards per return). He returned a kick-off for a touchdown in each of 1962 (103 yards, 4th longest in team history) and 1963 (98 yards) and remained an excellent return man throughout his Packers career. Adderley was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1981, having been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
5. Steve Odom, Packers 1974-79
Steve Odom was a triple threat – as a kick-off returner, punt returner and wide receiver. He had great speed and quickness but his greatest strength was probably his consistency – the careers of kick-off returners tend to be short (at least for one team) but Odom was the Packers man in that role for more than 5 seasons. Along the way, he became the Packers all-time leader in number of kick-off returns (179) and in kick-off return yardage (4,124 yards). He is also 13th on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average (23.0 yards per return). Odom led the NFL in kick-off return average in 1978 (27.1 yards per return), a year in which he returned a kick-off for a touchdown (the second of his career, the first being in 1975). Went to the Pro Bowl after the 1974 season. Odom is also one of the top punt returners in team history, although the story of his prowess in that discipline is for another day.
6. Randall Cobb, Packers 2011-Present
Randall Cobb was the Packers 2nd round draft pick in 2011 and whilst being best known for his prowess as a wide receiver, Cobb was an outstanding kick-off returner in his first two seasons in the NFL – averaging 27.7 yards per return in 2011 and 25.4 in 2012. He ranks 5th on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average (25.9 yards per return). On his NFL debut against the Saints, Cobb broke the franchise record and equalled the NFL record (since broken) by returning a kick-off 108 yards for a touchdown. His 2012 performance was enough to earn him an alternate spot for the Pro Bowl. Injury in 2013 and then his ascendency to starting wide receiver saw Cobb’s kick-off return career come to an end, but it was good enough to easily place him within the Packers all-time top 10. As an aside, Cobb holds the distinction of being the NFL’s first player born in the 1990s.
7. Roell Preston, Packers 1997-98
Preston is 3rd on the Packers all-time list in kick-off return average (26.7 yards per return). Played in just one game in 1997 returning 7 kicks for 211 yards (at that point a team record), but returned in 1998 to set team records for most kick-off returns (57) and kick-off return yardage (1,497) in a single season. Had one of the greatest single game kick-off return performances in NFL history against the Vikings that year, returning a kick-off 101 yards for touchdown (equal 5th longest in team history) whilst also breaking his own team record for single game kick-off return yardage (with 256 yards) and equalling the team mark of 8 kick-off returns in a single game. Earlier in 1998, Preston had returned a kick-off 100 yards for a touchdown against the Lions. His 1998 heroics earned him all-star status as a kick-off return man – Pro Bowl, PWFA 1st Team All-Pro and AP 2nd Team All-Pro. Unfortunately Preston never again reached the heights of 1998 and was out of the league after the 1999 season.
8. Tom Moore, Packers 1960-65
Running back Tom Moore was the Packers 1st Round Draft pick in 1960 (5th overall) but his career was overshadowed by that of his team mates Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. Moore was an excellent back up at running back to both Hornung and Taylor and an outstanding kick-off returner. He was good enough as a back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in his Packers career (including 658 in 1963) and earn all-star honours in 1962 and 1963. Moore truly excelled as a kick-off return man – he is currently 4th on the Packers all-time kick-off return list with an average of 26.5 yards per return. His prowess included leading the league in kick-off return average in his rookie 1960 season with 33.1 yards per return (2nd highest single season in team history). He was traded to Los Angeles in 1966 after six very fine seasons in Green Bay.
9. Allen Rossum, Packers 2000-01
Allen Rossum spent most of his NFL career as a specialist return man (both kick-offs and punts), including 22 games as a Green Bay Packer – the Packers having acquired him in a trade which cost a 5th round draft pick. Those 22 games saw Rossum being ranked 10th on the Packers all-time list in kick-off return average (23.5 yards per return) which included a 92 yard touchdown return in 2000 against the Colts. After a successful 2000 season in Green Bay, he had an injury curtailed 2001 before leaving the Packers and continuing a very fine career which included 4 other kick-off returns for touchdowns.
10. Tony Canadeo, Packers 1941-44 & 1946-52
Best known for his Hall of Fame career as a running back (inducted in 1974) and for being the Packers first 1,000 yard rusher, The “Gray Ghost of Gonzaga”, Tony Canadeo, was also a very fine kick-off return man. Although his opportunities to return kicks were sparse (he had too much to do in the offensive backfield), he took advantage of those opportunities to finish his career ranked 12th on the Packers all-time list for kick-off return average (23.1 yards per return). Canadeo was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1973.
Bonus Mention – Desmond Howard, Packers 1996 & 1999
Ok, so I couldn’t do this list without somehow mentioning Desmond Howard. He didn’t quite achieve the qualifying criterion outlined earlier (he had only 41 regular season kick-off returns for Green Bay), but I couldn’t leave him out altogether. It seems highly unlikely but it is true…Desmond Howard only returned 1 kick-off for a touchdown in his entire NFL career but what a return it was – the 99 yarder in Super Bowl XXXI which sealed the Packers victory. He did of course return 8 punts for touchdowns (including 3 for the Packers) but as discussed earlier, prowess in this discipline is for a separate article.
The following players almost made this top 10 list: Robert Brooks, Billy Grimes, Corey Harris, Del Rodgers and Charles Wilson.
Find Peter on twitter here: @The_IT_Hedgehog