Rambling tangent alert: I’m not superstitious, but the number one reason in my mind that the New England Patriots won’t go undefeated in 2017 is because of a phenomenon that’s plagued them at least once a year even in the Brady-Belichick era. It’s the “WTF?” game - the one or two games every year where the Patriots blow a game they’re supposed to win, and frequently in embarrassing fashion. Think like the Eagles game where Nate Ebner tried a rugby punt in 2015, or the 2009 wild-card game against the Ravens where Brady’s postgame comment that they “put ourselves behind the 8-ball” may have been the understatement of the year.
And a key component of the “WTF” game is almost always mistakes on special teams, which more often than not comes down to a phenomenon we probably all remember from Little League when the ball clanged off the bat and popped up a mile into the sky:
“I got it! I got it! I....oh, s***.”
All of that is an extremely roundabout way of getting to the point that New England’s anticipated heir apparent to the punt & kick return role (Cyrus Jones) and one of the best punt returners in history in Julian Edelman (no, really - look at the stats) are both out for the year with the dreaded ACL tear injury. So when Bill Belichick was asked about what to do with the returner position on Friday afternoon as the Patriots began cutting players to get from 90 players all the way down to 53, here’s what Bill had to say on how important it was to have consistency in the kick/punt game.
"I mean I'd say the ball-handling is critical," Belichick answered. "It's like the long-snapper. How many plays is a long-snapper in for a game? Call it 10? I don't know. Somewhere in that neighborhood. Eight to 10 extra-points, punts, field goals. But everybody carries a long-snapper.
"Between the kick-returns and the punt-returns, [it's] maybe a couple less than that. But I'd say the difficulty of those jobs and the importance of them and core ball-handling, there's not much of a way to lose a game quicker than that. I think it's a high priority for everybody. When I say everybody, I say every team . . . We'll have to see how it turns out, but it's not an afterthought at all. It's a priority."
Belichick also notes that, as much as catching a ball flying through the air would seem to be a pretty versatile skill, punt returns and kick returns are two extremely different animals:
(WARNING: BELICHICK SPECIAL TEAMS DEEP DIVE ALERT)
"Of course the easy answer is if one person does both, that makes it a lot easier, and it also makes the overall roster discussion a lot easier," Belichick began. "The big difference, of course, is on kickoff returns you have a chance to build up your speed. You get a chance to handle the ball cleanly, and there's nobody on top of you when you're catching it. You're able to run and set up your blocks and hit things full-speed . . . usually between the 20 and 30-yard line, where the coverage and the blockers and the wedge all sort of come together and the returners get a chance to set those blocks up and hit them and try to get through there.
"The punting game is a lot more situational. Mostly on kickoffs, the ball's always kicked from the same place. Rarely is there a difference; there are some, but they're minimal -- after a safety or that type of thing. But punting, the ball can be anywhere. The situation that they're punting in can be quite diverse and sometimes complex. Punters are very good at directional punting and kicking different types of punts -- end-over-end punts, spiral punts, spirals that don't turn over and so forth. The ball-handling is a little more complex.
"And you have to deal with players around you as you're catching the ball sooner or later. Sometimes a punter will out-kick his coverage, but the majority of the time there's some decision making involved on whether to catch it and how to make the first coverage player or two miss to get the return started, or fair-catch it, or to let it go and not catch the ball, or to let it go over your head and go into the end zone for a touchback. There's a lot of decision-making on whether to just catch the ball, or whether to catch it and run with it, or whether to catch it and just fair-catch it that are quite different than the kickoffs.
"And then in addition to that, you're dealing with defenders and coverage players that are on you a lot quicker on punt returns. Sometimes you only have a yard or two, or a couple yards, to get into space, make a guy miss, break a tackle, whereas kickoffs are much more of a build-up play. Because they're so different a lot of times you don't have the same player doing both.
"And on a personal opinion, because they're so different, I find the two plays very fascinating and intriguing and a great part of the strategy of football. Just because the plays themselves are so different in the teaching -- the rules, the skills and so forth. So that's why I'm not in favor of . . . I take an opposing view to the people that want to eliminate kickoffs from the game and try to have as few kickoffs as possible. I think it's an exciting play. It's a unique play and one that is a big momentum play because of what happened the play before -- the score or possibly the times at the start of the half where it's kind of a tone-setter or a pace-setter for that opening play.
"So yeah they're plenty different. And of course the same thing in the blocking. You have a chance to set up a return (on kickoffs), whereas on the punting side of it you have an option of trying to pressure the punter and block it or return it, but you kind of have to return it from the line of scrimmage. You can't drop off too far because the possibilities of fakes. So you have to keep enough guys up on the line of scrimmage to ensure that that ball's punted. And you have to ensure you're not getting an onside kick, too, but again, that's much less frequent and the rules are in the kick-return team's favor on the onsides kick. It's a big gamble for the kicking team to do that as a surprise tactic. So the blocking patterns and techniques of blocking are quite different on the punt returns compared to what they are in kickoff returns."
And you thought Bill was being snarky when he called Rams punter Johnny Hekker a bona fide stud:
“This guy is a weapon. I mean, he's not a good player. He's a weapon."
Back to the return game: speculation is all over the place on who takes over, whether it’s someone that’s already on the roster like Dion Lewis, Patrick Chung, rookie corner Will Likely, or Danny Amendola, or whether they’ll bring in someone else by trade or a free-agent signing.
An educated guess? They’ll see who hits the market this afternoon when everyone is finished with roster cuts, see who’s out there, and then figure out if they want to stay in-house or not.
Or, I mean, I’m only half joking here:
Anybody got Devin Hester's number? https://t.co/wir8VQJTYU— matt/goose (@SomeCallMeGoose) September 1, 2017
Hester did say it was tough to walk away from the game without a ring, right?