Following Robbie Gould’s 46-yard field goal, the Minnesota Vikings trailed San Francisco 31-20 with five minutes left in the third quarter of Sunday’s game.
All of the momentum was on the side of the 49ers.
But then Mitch Wishnowsky, the 49ers punter and kickoff specialist, did something that NFL teams are learning is a mistake: He booted the football to Vikings rookie running back Kene Nwangwu.
Nwangwu caught it at his 1-yard line and followed blocks by C.J. Ham and Alexander Mattison on the right hash. The Iowa State product changed directions to shake safety Jaquiski Tartt, left Wishnowsky in the dust and ran it all the way back for a touchdown.
It was the rookie’s second career kickoff return TD. He’s only returned eight kicks over his young career since taking over the job in Week 9. That's a 25% touchdown clip.
To put it in more perspective, there have only been five total kickoff return touchdowns in the NFL this season.
Kickoffs have become a smaller part of the NFL game since the league changed the rules in 2011, moving kicks from the 30-yard line to the 35. It was an effort to increase player safety by limiting kickoffs where special-teams players run into each other at full speed.
Since then, only three players have returned multiple kickoffs for a score in the same season: Nwangwu, former Minnesota first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson and former receiver Jacoby Jones.
Patterson notched a pair of kickoff return TDs in his rookie season of 2013 (at Chicago, vs. Green Bay) and two years later in ’15 (at Oakland, vs. Seattle). He was named an All-Pro return man as a rookie and led the league in yards per return in three of his first four seasons.
Jones had one career kickoff return touchdown entering the 2012 season before he scored twice – including a 108-yard score – vs. Dallas and against Oakland.
The all-time record in a single season is four, set by Green Bay’s Travis Williams in 1967 and Chicago’s Cecil Turner three years later.
Twelve players have taken three kicks back for a score in one campaign, and six have done it this century. Leon Washington, then with Seattle, and Oakland’s Jacoby Ford were the last to do it, tallying three apiece in 2010 -- the final season with the kickoff at the 30-yard line.
Patterson is tied with another former first-round pick Percy Harvin for the Vikings franchise lead with five kickoff return touchdowns. Nwangwu is the only other Minnesota player with multiple. Only 11 other players have ever returned a kickoff back to the end zone for six points.
In four seasons at Iowa State, Nwangwu returned 92 kicks for 2,470 yards -- an average of 26.8 per attempt. He had one kickoff return for a touchdown in college, a 100-yard sprint to the end zone in a 49-19 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 26, 2016.
Kickoff return touchdowns are rare, but Nwangwu’s talent is shining brightly. It’s a boost the 5-6 Vikings need to utilize as much as possible as they fight for a playoff spot.