Some objects in this world are just poorly named. Strawberries are not berries. Koala bears are not bears. Jellyfish are not fish. And special teams are not special. Special teams are the aspect of football you never see because you use that time to go to the restroom or get a drink. When they aren’t fair-caught, punts are rarely returned more than 10 yards. Extra points are almost always converted, and kickoffs routinely sail into if not through the end zone for a touchback. Too often, special teams are the football equivalent of watching paint dry.
But once in a blue moon, NFL fans have been rewarded with an electric returner. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Deion Sanders. Dante Hall. Josh Cribbs. Devin Hester. Every one of them provided excitement to an otherwise mundane aspect of the game. And now, for the first time since Dwayne Harris last donned the star almost a decade ago, the Cowboys have a returner who can get fans out of their seats. KaVontae Turpin is simply fun to watch. “Turpin Time” has become a thing in Dallas.
Signed as a gadget player, few knew what to expect of the 26-year-old speedster before the season began. Turpin was impressive on the field at TCU and posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.31 seconds at his own pro day. But off-the-field conduct–he pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend in 2018, one of at least two arrests during his college career –kept him out of the NFL post-graduation. He spent the next four years as a football vagabond, playing everywhere from the Fan Controlled Football League to The Spring League to the European Football League to the revived USFL. After winning USFL MVP honors in the spring, the Cowboys signed him to a free-agent deal in July.
Turpin made an instant impact, returning both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in Dallas’ second preseason game, covering 184 yards on two touches. In one night, he earned the full-time return role, his roster spot so safe that he never saw the field again in the preseason.
Heading into the Cowboys’ game on Sunday at Green Bay, Turpin holds the fourth-longest kickoff return and the second-longest punt return of 2022. Baltimore’s Devin Duvernay is the only other player to rank in the top five in both categories. Turpin is third in the league in punt-return average (14.7 yards on 13 returns) and has averaged 24.2 yards on nine kickoff returns, tied for 10th in the league. He has already separated himself from the pack. The difference between his 52-yard punt return and the 10th-longest return is 27 yards. His 28-yard punt return is good for ninth in the NFL. Similarly, Turpin’s 52-yard kickoff return, fourth-best in the league, is 21 yards longer than the 10th-best. All told, 79 percent of punt returners have yet to exceed 25 yards on return this season. Turpin has already hit that mark twice.
His judgment when fielding a punt or kickoff has been equally impressive. He is returning 46 percent of his opportunities, a modest return rate in a vacuum but one that falls in line with some of the game’s best players at the position in 2022. (Elite returners generally fair catch or let the ball bounce into the end zone on 35 to 50 percent of their opportunities.) Meanwhile, Turpin’s fair-catch rate on punts is the highest among first-year returners who have fielded more than five punts. Even more impressively, he has yet to muff a punt in 24 chances; the other seven rookie returners have combined for 10. Remove each player’s longest punt return, Turpin still has the fifth-best average in the league. Add it up, and his ability to wait on the right opportunity means the Cowboys rarely lose ground on a return.
But never mind the rest of the NFL. If Turpin’s 14.7-yard average per punt return holds, it would be the third-highest single-season average in franchise history. This is like rainfall on a desert, as Dallas has been on a long streak of mediocre to below-average production in the return game. Roughly 30 percent of punt returners exceed a 10-yard average in a season. No Cowboy has hit that mark since 2013.
Turpin is early in his career. But in half a season, he already has the second-longest punt return of any Cowboy over the last seven years. And his judgment in determining which punts should be returned has helped him avoid the pitfalls seen by CeeDee Lamb, Ryan Switzer, and Lucky Whitehead, who were too eager to return punts, as well as Cole Beasley, who was too reluctant.
Dallas hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since 2017, but with each passing game, it feels like Turpin is one week closer to breaking that drought. Even if he never finds the end zone, he most certainly has put his stamp on the return game with his explosiveness, decision-making, and ball security. In less than a year, Turpin has risen from minor-league football to one of the best returners in the NFL. That’s well worth skipping a bathroom break.