Judging success on special teams is a hard thing to do in football. You cannot simply look at the punt or kick returner and make a definitive statement on that player. While football is a game of everyone doing their own part in all aspects of the game, it takes on an even more important role on special teams. One missed block can result in a bad play but on the flip side, one well-timed block can spring a returner for a long gain or touchdown.
Marcus Thigpen was signed by the Miami Dolphins in 2012 after bouncing around the NFL and CFL since 2009. He burst onto the scene, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Dolphins season opener against the Houston Texans. He also returned a punt for a touchdown later in the year against the Buffalo Bills.
Since then, Thigpen has shown flashes of greatness, but he hasn’t been consistent. However, is that more of a reflection on him or the Dolphins’ special teams unit? Let’s take a look.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins had an overall special teams grade of 53.7, which was the seventh best in the league. That year, Thigpen had an overall grade of +2.2, second best in the league. His kick return grade was +5.5 and his punt return grade was +4.4. He returned 38 kickoff returns and accumulated 1,040 yards, sixth most in the league. He had an average return of 27.4 yards, which was 20th best. He scored one touchdown along with 11 other players.
On the punt return side, he had 26 attempts with six of them being fair catches. The other 20 saw him accumulate 316 yards, 11th best in the league. He averaged 12.2 yards per return, which ranked him at number 14. He had one touchdown along with 15 other players.
It is easy to see why the Dolphins were excited about Thigpen. Along with their high special teams rating, they had a kick/punt returner who can make impact plays and score touchdowns. While he wasn’t the best in the league, he was near the top in all of the major categories and bringing him back in 2013 was a no-brainer.
However, his play dropped off considerably this past season. The big question is why this happened. The Dolphins had an overall special teams grade of -2.9. Only nine teams were worse than them. Thigpen had an overall grade of +1.5, 35th best in the league. His kick return grade was +0.4 and his punt return grade was +1.1. He returned 39 kickoff returns and accumulated 878 yards, seventh most in the league. He had an average return of 22.5 yards, which was 61st best. He scored zero touchdowns, but only seven players in the NFL scored a kickoff return touchdown last season.
On the punt return side, he had 34 attempts with 20 of them being fair catches. The other 14 saw him accumulate 264 yards, 13th best in the league. He averaged 7.8 yards per return, which ranked him at number 45. He had zero touchdowns but only 12 other players scored a punt return touchdown.
What happened? How does a player go from being ranked at the top in all major categories one year and then have a tremendous drop off the next? The only conclusion I can think of is the fact that it was because of the lackluster play of the Dolphins special teams unit. They were bad which made Thigpen look bad. He has shown the ability to break tackles and have long returns. He has shown the ability to see the field well and make things happen when nothing was there.
This is why it is too early to move on from Thigpen. With that said, I absolutely believe that the Dolphins should add some competition for him in training camp through the draft or by signing one of the free agents on the market such as Joshua Cribbs. Thigpen needs someone to push him to become the best that he can possibly be. However, he also needs a special teams unit that can block for him and stay true to their assignments so he can make the big plays needed to spark a team.