The first few weeks of the 2020 season were a struggle for Gunner Olszewski. Despite being back at full strength again after ending his 2019 rookie campaign on injured reserve, he was unable to make much of an impact for the New England Patriots on both offense and special teams — raising questions about his long-term outlook, especially after he lost his kickoff return role to practice squad call-up Donte Moncrief.
That move, however, might have been just what the doctor ordered for the second-year man. Since Moncrief took over handling kickoffs last week, after all, Olszewski has been nothing short of spectacular as New England’s punt returner culminating in a standout performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13.
Olszewski lined up deep on all four of the Chargers’ punts. He caught one fairly and decided to run back three of the others. The results: 70 yards and a touchdown, 14 yards, and 61 yards. All in all, he finished the game with a return average of 48.3 yards per runback and his first career score.
“It feels good. All the work you put in is paying off — staying late, getting there early,” Olszewski said about his successful outing in L.A. during his postgame media conference call. “It feels good, that’s the best way I can put it.”
While all three of his returns were impressive, his first obviously stands out.
Not only did Olszewski find the end zone for the first time in his career, he also found some redemption for last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. Back then, the former undrafted free agent appeared to have scored as well but a controversial block in the back penalty against rookie Anfernee Jennings erased the touchdown and left Olszewski with “only” a 58-yard return. There were no flags this time around, though.
“When I turned around, it felt like half the team is running on the field, I figured there was probably no laundry because last time after I scored it was just Chase [Winovich] and Terez [Hall] who met me in the end zone,” Olszewski said while comparing the two plays. “I was like, ‘Okay, something’s up here.’ But when all the guys came running out I knew it was good.”
One of the players joining him in the end zone in celebration was Cam Newton, who sprinted down the field after the score. Following the game, the Patriots’ starting quarterback verbalized the emotions felt after seeing Olszewski find the end zone.
“I think this game was important because just to see the maturation of him over the weeks. Last week, he got he got kind of slighted with the touchdown being called back and for him to show up again,” said Newton — not without mentioning the rest of the special teams operation, though. “I know Gunner gets all the praise by just being the runner more or less, but you see guys like Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, predominately the defense out there creating seams and avenues for guys to run.”
Slater, meanwhile, also spoke highly of Olszewski after the contest.
“He’s becoming a really dependable, very confident player. And he’s a difference maker, we felt that way all season,” the team captain said. “It’s funny, we had people asking, ‘What’s wrong with the kicking game? Why aren’t we making the plays that we normally would?’ And the key is just sticking with it. You stick with it long enough you do things the right way — like Gunner has done since he’s gotten here — eventually the play’s going to come your way. It was really exciting to see him go out and make plays today and really help this team with a fantastic effort today.”
While his special teams contributions stood out, Olszewski’s day extended beyond his three returns and 12 total snaps in the game’s oft-overlooked third phase. The Bemedji State product also was on the field for six snaps on offense and helped put the finishing touches on New England’s 45-0 victory by catching a 38-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the final period.
That catch, naturally, was the first receiving touchdown of his young career as a pro. That it happened, however, was not a surprise considering how close he and Stidham worked together over the offseason.
“I think the coolest part about that was [that] me and Stidham put so much work in this offseason. Every day we were up there at dawn; he was throwing, I was running what felt like a 100 routes a day. For me and him to go in there and do that was pretty cool,” Olszewski said.
“I’ve caught a million footballs from Jarrett over the summer. We got the look that we wanted, he pump-faked the bubble, we locked eyes, and I knew right away he’s going to put it right on my chest. We ran that route probably 20 times this summer. I think that all paid off.”
Olszewski therefore finished the game with four total touches that he took for 183 yards from scrimmage and two scores. Oh, and he had a tackle on special teams as well as he was quick to point out after the game.
“I had a tackle too! Actually, Julian [Edelman] always talks about the game where he had a punt return [touchdown] and a tackle.”
Like Edelman, who remains on the NFL’s Coronavirus reserve list for the time being, Olszewski is also leaving a positive impression as a return man early on in his career. While this may or may not be a sign of things to come, the 24-year-old is quickly and spectacularly growing into his own as the Patriots’ punt returner after a rather slow start into the season that saw him run back just four kicks for 30 total yards (as well as 17 kickoffs for 397).
Since his focus shifted only to the punt return game last week, however, he has stood out as an electrifying player — something that is a credit to both him and the development of New England’s punt return unit, as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out on Sunday.
“Happy for Gunner, but he got a lot of help on those plays as well,” Belichick said. “He did a good job on finishing the runs and making some guys miss. But if we can just get those returns started... Justin [Bethel], Jon[athan Jones], Slater, Cody [Davis], those guys did a good job of getting him started and he did a good job of finishing the plays. So yeah, I’m happy for him.
“His career is not the classic way of an NFL career, given where he came from but happy for the success that he’s had. Gunner’s worked extremely hard and overcome a lot. He’s not a big guy, but he has a big heart and he plays hard.”