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What’s happened to the New York Giants’ return game?

Dwayne Harris not having the success he enjoyed a season ago

NFL: Preseason-New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals
Dwayne Harris
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants are 7-3, but they haven’t necessarily played like a typical 7-3 team. The defense, so far, has been fantastic while the offense has played below expectations. But while the offense has been the focus of concern for many observing the franchise, the Giants have been worse at another aspect of the game — special teams.

From year-to-year, special teams is the most volatile of the three units on the field in terms of performance. There are teams like the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs who can repeat league-best performances year after year, but mostly there’s little season-to-season correlation and that’s where the Giants find themselves in 2016. Last season by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Giants were No. 2 in special teams, but this year they’re 28th. Some of the biggest drop off for the Giants has come in the productiveness of the return game.

Through 11 weeks, the Giants have the 28th-best average starting field position in the league on offense. Some of that is from the defense not forcing turnovers at a high rate -- they’re 24th in percentage of opposing drives ending in a turnover -- though they’re eighth in interceptions per drive. But a big part of the poor field position is the lack of success on punt returns this season.

Dwayne Harris has been the Giants’ main punt returner this season, as has been the case since last year when he was given a five-year, $17.5 million contract with $7.1 million guaranteed to be a return specialist and occasional receiver. He seemed to play up to that deal at some points last season when he was one of the better return men in the league on both punt and kick returns. This year, though, that hasn’t been the case. So far through 2016 there’s been 28 players who have returned 10 or more punts and only three of them have a worse return average than Harris’s 6.38. His 102 total punt return yards are more than just one other returner, the Jets’ Jalin Marshall, who is also last in yards per return.

Last season. Harris averaged more than 10 yards per punt return and his 10.08 figure was ninth-best among 40 players with 10 or more punt returns. This year, only three of Harris’s returns have gone for 10 or more yards. His long on the year was a 17-yard return in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys.

That return might have been the best blocked retrun of the season, too. Harris has tried for some returns this season that looked promising, but holes quickly get filled with nowhere to go. Take the most recent game against the Chicago Bears. Harris fielded a punt late in the third quarter and had about a 15-yard cushion between him and the closest defender when he caught the ball. But a blown block allowed the punt protector to run all the way up the field and stop the return after eight yards.

Open spaces that close quickly have been common on punt returns this season. On a return against Green Bay, Harris fielded a punt with a group of Packers untouched down the middle, but there was an opening to Harris’s left. With one good block, there was a path to the outside. But Michael Hunter (39) take a bad angle, which allowed his defender to cut Harris off. Harris broke the initial tackle, but he was pushed back inside where another Packer could make the play.

In Harris’s defense, broken tackles, like the one on this play, have been common on returns this season. He has not recorded a broken tackle during his limited time on offense, but he’s been able to make the first man miss more than a few times on both kick and punt returns. Last season, that skill wasn’t needed as much. Take a look at a 2015 return against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. It’s a booming punt that slightly outkicks the coverage, but the blocking in front of Harris is also sound. It’s a 26-yard return, where Harris is not touched until he slips on the field. These opportunities just aren’t coming this year.

The returner isn’t blameless in all of this, though. Harris has made some decisions that have ended up costing the Giants some valuable field position. Against the Ravens, Harris stepped back to field a punt at the 5-yard line and needed to break a tackle for a five-yard return. If the ball goes into the end zone, it comes out to the 20, so the Giants potentially lost 10 yards of field position by Harris trying to do too much.

By average return yards, Harris has been one of the better kickoff returners in the league this season. His 25.63 yards per return average is seventh among 24 returners with 10 or more kick returns on the season. However, even that ranking does not do much to give the Giants’ extra yards of field position. With kickoff touchbacks moving out to the 25-yard line, many of Harris’s returns are coming from either a yard in front or a yard behind the goal line. With a 25-yard return average, the ball is more or less going to where it would be spotted with just a touchback.

We are talking about a very small sample of returns here. With one or two big returns all of this could flip, but to this point in the season the Giants haven’t been able to make that happen. This isn’t the biggest issue facing the team right now, but it is a significant drop off from what the team saw last year. In 2015, the Giants had the 12th-best starting field position on offense while also gaining the eighth most yards per drive. Being 24th in yards per drive this season puts the Giants even further back on the field when they’re starting with the 28th best field position in the league. For this team, any way to move the ball up the field is going to be a big help getting towards the postseason.