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The kick returner stands alone in his end zone, the last man back. If he completes his mission, then he will be the first to cross the other goal line, more than 100 yards away.

Running backs, receivers and quarterbacks can’t go farther than 99 yards on a given snap. The kick returner is the only player who’s a marked man before the play starts, yet can run the true length of the field for a touchdown.

“To go a hundred yards? Holy cats!” said Abe Woodson, who retired in 1966 as the NFL’s kickoff return leader and still ranks fourth in average. “That’s doing something.”

When the ball is teed up, all 11 defenders know who must be stopped. All 10 of his blockers need to make enough space for him to cut, dodge, slither and sprint until – if everything breaks just so – he has left 21 players in his vapor trail.

“You feel like you’ve conquered everybody on that field,” said Mel Gray, the NFL’s leader in return yards and touchdowns when he retired in 1997.

“You just destroyed them. It’s a high that you can’t get from anything else.”

Fans and players have been chasing that high all season. Fixes are in distressingly short supply.

Kickoff returns have faded into near-irrelevancy around the NFL, and they’ve become downright moot for the Buffalo Bills.

The NFL, citing safety concerns amid a crush of lawsuits over head injuries, has passed rules in recent years to marginalize kickoffs and limit collisions. So touchbacks have spiked; returns have waned.

“It’s the most exciting aspect of the game,” Brian Mitchell, the reigning return-yardage king, said from Washington D.C. “You look at somebody like a Devin Hester or Desmond Howard in the Super Bowl. I don’t know how you can want to take that out of the game.”

Fans anticipated what Marquise Goodwin and Leodis McKelvin would do on returns this year. But the Bills are about to obliterate club records for kick-return inadequacy – even if you want to include the nine-game strike season of 1982.

If not for this afternoon’s opponent in Toronto, the Bills would be on pace for the NFL’s fewest kickoff returns since the schedule increased to 12 games in 1947 and its fewest kickoff return yards in half a century.

The Atlanta Falcons rank last in kickoff returns and yards. The Bills are right there with them.

Return men are struggling to break open across the league. Through 179 games, three touchdowns have been scored on kickoffs, a pace that would produce the fewest in 20 years.

“It’s unbelievable,” Gray said from his home in Houston. “There are great players that come from great colleges. You figure they have the talent on every team to take one back at some point throughout the year. And I know how eager the majority of players would love to take one back.

“But only three so far this year? I’m surprised there haven’t been a lot more.”

Returns and allowances

For the record, punt returns around the NFL haven’t changed much. There have been 10 punt returns for touchdowns, a pace of 14.5 for the year. The NFL averaged 19.0 touchdowns the past two seasons but 13.3 touchdowns the six seasons before that.

The Bills, however, have been far from dangerous here. They rank 27th with an average punt return of 7.0 yards.

The Bills have averaged double-digit yardage eight of the past nine seasons and 10 of the past 15 with standouts Roscoe Parrish, Nate Clements and McKelvin.

Their longest punt return this year has been 25 yards. An illegal block wiped out an 83-yard McKelvin touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs three games ago.

Kickoff returns have been more frustrating for the Bills.

Expectations were high entering the season. Goodwin dazzled in the exhibition opener with a 107-yard touchdown and another 53-yard kickoff return against the Indianapolis Colts.

Buffalo’s best kickoff return in the regular season has been 26 yards, the league’s skimpiest long return. Goodwin is averaging 23.4 yards.

“It’s unfortunate,” Goodwin said. “Returning kicks is something I like to do. We have fewer opportunities based on the rules, but hopefully we can capitalize on the opportunities we do get.”

The Bills have returned 14 kickoffs for 292 yards.

They’re on pace for 20 kickoff returns. The club record for fewest is 36 during the ’82 strike season. Their worst total for a full season is 37 two years ago.

“People have not given us the opportunity to return the ball,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “People have been kicking it out of the end zone and deep.”

Two clubs somehow have gotten fewer chances. The Falcons have returned 11 kickoffs this year for 267 yards, while the Cardinals have tried 13 for 275 yards.

The Falcons are on track for fewest kickoff returns in NFL history. Otherwise, the Bills and Cardinals are on pace for the fewest since the 1944 New York Giants lowered the limbo bar to 17. Those Giants played 10 regular-season games and didn’t let their opponents tee it up often, allowing 75 points and posting five shutouts.

The Bills are on pace for 425 kickoff return yards, a total that has been surpassed by 1,576 individuals in NFL history. Only three teams have done worse: the 1940 Giants with 282 yards, the 1940 Green Bay Packers with 381 yards and 1963 Chicago Bears with 424 yards.

Buffalo’s record for fewest kickoff yards is 746, set in 1993.

“We haven’t been getting a lot of action on kickoffs,” McKelvin said. “But it’s going to happen soon. That’s how I feel.”

The system isn’t set up to accommodate kickoff returns anymore. Marrone, McKelvin and Goodwin each bemoaned how often opponents use directional kicks when not blasting the ball out of the end zone.

This is the third season since the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line and the fifth season since it eliminated three-, four- and five-man wedge blocks.

Results have been striking.

About 8 to 9 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks from 2000 through 2005. Then the number began to climb steadily. By 2010, touchbacks occurred 16.4 percent of the time, the highest rate since the NFL moved kickoffs back to the 30-yard line in 1994.

Besieged by concussion litigation, the NFL wanted to further suppress the potential for injuries on a play when teams barrel directly toward each other at full speed. Bills wedge-buster Kevin Everett broke his neck while covering a kickoff on opening day, 2008.

With the ball 5 yards closer to the opponent’s end zone, the touchback percentage soared to 43.5 percent in 2011 and 44.1 percent last year.

Through 12 weeks this season, touchbacks happened on 53 percent of kickoffs.

Kickoff conspiracy?

Mitchell is disgusted with what the NFL is doing to his former occupation.

He rewrote the NFL’s kick-return record books in his 14 seasons. Nobody has fielded more returns. He amassed more than 1,000 yards on kick returns nine times. He ranks second in all-purpose yards, 230 behind Jerry Rice.

Mitchell would rather hold onto those records legitimately rather than have rules erase would-be challengers.

He asserted special teams are being used as scapegoats for safety.

NFL Commissioner “Roger Goodell and the people in the league have thrown more smoke screens out there to make fans think they’re doing stuff to prevent head injuries, and they haven’t done a damn thing,” Mitchell said.

“Legal hits are being fined these days. Fans say, ‘The game is being cleaned up.’ No, they’re making you think that they’re doing more just by fining because the guys get fined, they appeal and a lot of times they win their appeals, which you don’t hear about as much.

“I think it’s a bunch of B.S. what they’re doing. Every year, concussions have gone up.”

As part of its report on NFL head injuries, the PBS series “Frontline” created a concussion database from official injury reports dating to 2009, when there were 92 reported concussions. There were 129 concussions in 2010, 142 in 2011 and 171 last year.

There have been 88 reported concussions this year, a pace of 125, the first annual decline if the trend holds up.

Mitchell told The News he sees clues of a conspiracy to induce more touchbacks. He suggested the NFL is fiddling with the K-balls that are used only for kicks and punts.

K-balls were introduced in 1999 because players and equipment managers were manipulating game balls – tumbling them in a clothes dryer, pounding them with dumbbells, soaking them in hot water – to make them easier to kick.

To halt shenanigans, the NFL had 12 K-balls shipped directly from Wilson Sporting Goods to each officiating crew. The box is sealed with tamper-proof tape and popped open two hours before the game. K-balls never are to be unsupervised.

Once implemented, kickers and punters complained. The K-balls were too waxy and stiff, didn’t travel as far and permitted juicier return opportunities. Thrilling returns were what the NFL desired at the time.

Twenty years later, is the shoe on the other foot? Mitchell claimed the K-balls could be altered at the factory at the league’s whim.

“There are guys that couldn’t kick the ball in the end zone when they were kicking from the 30,” Mitchell said. “Now they’re at the 35 and kicking it out of the end zone. Is it leg strength, or are the footballs doctored up now?”

Touchback percentages not only skyrocketed in 2011 compared to the previous season, but also compared to the last time the NFL kicked off from the 35-yard line.

In 1993, the touchback percentage was a relatively modest 26.5 percent from the 35-yard line. That also was the last season the NFL allowed 3-inch kicking tees. Tees now are an inch high to reduce hang time.

So in 20 years, kickers are blasting the ball farther and more consistently off a shorter tee.

“What is the league doing?” Mitchell said. “I know these kickers ain’t got that strong that quick. It doesn’t add up. It does seem like they’re trying to take kickoffs out of the game, doesn’t it?”

In response to Mitchell’s allegation, two NFL spokesmen emphasized K-balls were tamper-proof and “introduced specifically to prevent tampering.”

Informed of the league’s reply, Mitchell texted: “LOL.”

Quick feet, quick brain

Even when the ball doesn’t sail out of the end zone, kickoffs from the 35-yard line put stress on a return man.

Special-teams coordinators use analytics that show for every yard deeper in the end zone a kickoff is fielded, the chances of returning it to the 20-yard line drop precipitously.

Anything beyond 4 yards deep in the end zone, the safe decision usually is to kneel down and grant the offense a comfortable start at the 20-yard line. Plus, keeping peace always is nice. Each yard closer to the end zone an offense begins its drive further stokes the head coach and the quarterback’s ire.

As such, teams are keeping the ball in the end zone and not taking the chance.

When return men, perhaps bored from constantly kneeling down or watching balls fly over their heads, do run the ball out of the end zone, a geometric problem is created. The coverage unit is charging from 5 yards closer than it was three years ago.

Let’s say the team has called for a return up the right sideline. Previously, a return man could have the option to break back against the flow of the coverage and hit the soft, wide corner on the opposite side.

Now there’s too much penetration. By the time the return man can make a move, the coverage unit already has stormed inside the 20-yard line and made a mess of things.

All of this takes place without wedge blocks that many return men relied upon prior to 2009.

Mitchell didn’t like the wedge. He preferred one lead blocker 5 yards in front of him and two more blockers 10 yards ahead to better scan the field.

Woodson wanted the wedge every time.

“That’s the best thing that could happen when you got the wedge block, man,” Woodson, 79, said from his home in Las Vegas.

Woodson was a five-time Pro Bowler for the San Francisco 49ers. He returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 1963 and ranks fourth all time with a 28.7-yard average.

“The wedge makes a big difference,” Woodson said. “Without it, you’re on your own. I’d have been in a world of trouble.”

The wedge wasn’t merely for protection.

The 5-foot-9 Gray would hide behind his wedge and wait as long as he could for the gunners to get drawn in, all the while intending to zip away from the play.

“The wedge can suck them in, fool them,” said Gray, who played 12 seasons, most notably for the Detroit Lions. “Then the returner will use his ability to scan the field and find openings. Then you can bounce it outside, right or left.

“You don’t have as much time now. You have to make up your mind 5 yards sooner.”

Going, going gone?

The NFL’s competition committee has debated the value of kickoffs and whether they should be scrapped.

Committee member John Mara, the influential Giants owner, has said he “could see the day in the future where that play could be taken out of the game.”

McKelvin was incredulous when that idea was broached to him last week in the Bills’ locker room.

“What are they going to do,” McKelvin said, “just put the ball on the 20 and start the game? That wouldn’t even feel right. I don’t know if that’s the kind of football I want to be playing.”

Last year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano made a radical proposal to eliminate kickoffs.

Schiano, the coach at Rutgers when Eric LeGrand fractured two vertebrae while covering a kickoff in 2010, advocated replacing kickoffs with a choice: starting with a fourth-and-15 play from a team’s own 30-yard line or punting away from that spot.

The NFL announced in July kickoffs won’t happen in the Pro Bowl anymore. The ball will be placed at the 25-yard line at the start of each half and after scoring plays.

Gray sees an irony in that modification. He viewed the feat of turning a kick into a touchdown a higher honor than going to the Pro Bowl. Gray was voted to four of them.

“To me,” Gray said, “it’s like winning Player of the Year. It was something you could brag on for years if you took one back.

“You may not do anything else, but if you return a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown, that would solidify your career until they put you under.”

Detroit running back Barry Sanders, incandescent as any player you could imagine, frequently would remind Gray how important a big kickoff return was for igniting the Silverdome or setting a tone on the road.

Sanders fed off the energy as much as the fans did.

Gray was agitated by the fact there have been three kickoff return TDs all year. The rules have made it tougher for return men to get a chance to begin with. And when they do get on, they’re more reluctant to give it a shot.

To think we might see zero touchdowns in the near future was far more unsettling.

“That would be sad,” Gray said, “because it would take a lot of fun out of the game.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com