If you watched any 49er game last year, you probably saw a mistake on special teams at some point. As a result, San Francisco finished 2021 with the third-lowest DVOA in the NFL and was in the negatives in three out of the five kicking units.
The in-game variance will skew the average starting field position as turnovers like a blocked punt or getting stopped on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line. But you'll get a more accurate picture when you look at the metric throughout the season.
The 49ers' average starting field position this season has been from the 28-yard line, which is 14th in the NFL. The offense’s average starting field position in 2021 was 29th and 23rd the year prior.
For the first time in over a decade, the Niners have a weapon as a punt returner. Ray-Ray McCloud is sixth in the NFL in punt return average at 10.9 yards per return. Two of those went for over 20 yards, including a 35-yarder. McCloud gives the offense a free first down every time he touches the ball.
San Francisco is fifth in punt return DVOA this season. Here’s how the team has fared dating back to Tedd Ginn’s magical 2011 season:
49ers punt return stats
|Yards per Return||10.9||7.2||N/A||8.2||N/A||9.4||7.5||7.2||8.2||10.4||10.8||12.2|
|Yards Per Return Rank||6th||25th||N/A||9th||N/A||10th||21st||26th||21st||14th||14th||6th|
|Punt Returner||Ray-Ray McCloud||Brandon Aiyuk||Richie James||Richie James||Trent Taylor||Trent Taylor||Jeremy Kerley||Bruce Eillington||Bruce Ellington||LaMichael James||Tedd Ginn||Tedd Ginn|
As you can see, it’s been a struggle since. Only one year, the 2019 Super Bowl run, have the 49ers cracked the top ten again in punt return yardage per return and punt return DVOA. McCloud has more punt return yardage than the punt return leaders and, in some cases, the team as a whole in five of the 11 seasons.
Something clicked for McCloud in recent weeks. He had two fumbles in back-to-back games against the Broncos and Rams early in the season. Could it be McCloud is more confident? There aren’t any bobbling issues, so Ray-Ray has no ball-handling concerns to think about in the back of his mind.
We take for granted the job of a returner and think it’s as simple as just catching the ball. Here’s New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talking about everything a returner must judge on the fly:
Here’s Bill Belichick talking about everything that goes into being a returner and some of the things they have to judge on the fly. pic.twitter.com/74gyJd4GzK— KP (@KP_Show) November 9, 2022
The 49ers invested a second-round pick in Dante Pettis during the 2018 NFL Draft. Pettis set records as a returner in college for average and touchdowns. But he couldn’t cut it in three seasons with the Niners and failed to have a double-digit return.
I was clamoring for the 49ers to give Aiyuk a shot as a rookie. I remember his first punt return went for 16 yards in a primetime game against Buffalo. He had flashes but never was consistent, and, as Belichick alluded to above, the flight of the ball gave Aiyuk fits. It seemed like a little league outfielder who had no idea where the ball was traveling to. That forced San Francisco to invest in McCloud.
It’s only been eight games, but McCloud is proving the importance of a return man and making the Niners look wise for bringing him in this offseason.