FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Slater confirmed to the Globe Friday he has never been a traffic cop, and never spent one single shift as a nightclub doorman, hand-selecting with an experienced eye the lucky few who get to walk past the velvet rope.
OK, it might be a stretch, but it says here that Slater holds a similar job with the Patriots, using his hands and decision-making skills to determine whether the kickoff returner lined up behind him gets to come out of the end zone with the ball or takes a touchback.
If Slater determines that the kickoff should be brought out, he’ll give the returner the green light. Lately, that’s been rookie Josh Boyce, who had a 41-yard return last Sunday in Houston, the team’s longest this season. But if Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain, concludes that taking it out would be too risky, he’ll step in front of the return man and put up a hand. S-T-O-P.
See, Slater doesn’t mind playing the heavy, and said that if his initial order gets ignored, he’s not afraid to take the next — and presumably last — step: Tackling his teammate before he leaves the end zone.
“If I need to tackle him to keep him in, I’ll do that,” Slater said.
Kidding aside — at least we think he was kidding — Slater is following the likes of former teammate Kevin Faulk and current teammate Shane Vereen, who according to coach Bill Belichick have also handled the kickoff return’s version of a hall monitor. With the location of the kickoff being moved up from the 30 to the 35-yard-line prior to the 2011 season, it’s become an important role, because kicks are traveling deeper into the end zone, and the players running downfield on kickoff coverage trying to smash the returner are starting 5 yards closer.
Not long ago, kicks sent halfway into the end zone frequently resulted in a touchback. Now, with fast, antsy playmakers awaiting the kick, returns have routinely started from those spots in the end zone, if not deeper.
Slater, and Belichick, acknowledge a change in philosophy.
“Yeah, no question. I think there’s a much different mentality,” Belichick said. “If you have a guy that you feel like is capable of making a play, then you’re risking 3, 4, 5, yards of field position, whatever it is. Is there a little bit of field position risk? Yeah, there’s arguably a little bit, but if you feel that your return matches up well enough against their coverage or your guy is a guy that you just want to get the ball in his hands and you’re willing to take that 4 or 5 yard, whatever it is, field position loss in exchange for the opportunity to make a play, then absolutely that’s the tradeoff.”
The return duties for the Patriots this season have been handled mostly by three players: LaGarrette Blount has 15 returns for a 23.3-yard average, Devin McCourty has seven returns for an 18.9-yard average, and Boyce has six returns for a 24.8-yard average. As a team, the Patriots are averaging 22.0 yards per kickoff return. They’re 23d in the NFL on average drive start after a kickoff. At the 20.6 yard line, it’s about 20 inches beyond where they’d start if they took a touchback every time.
No matter who the return man is, Slater says his job is the same: “Try to put him in situations where he can be successful.”
But Slater has 3-5 seconds to make his decision, taking plenty of information into consideration.
“Seeing it off the tee is big. You can tell if it’s a line drive or if he got underneath it. From there, I’m looking at Josh and judging where he’s setting up. Even if it is a deep kick and I see that it’s a line drive, I may let him come out. If it’s got a lot of hang time and it’s not that deep, you’ve got to be careful and play it by ear. Also, how he catches it: Is he catching it going to the side? Is he catching it going forward or back? A lot of things really go into it,” Slater said.
Another factor is who’s lined up behind Slater. Boyce, for instance, has better speed than either Blount or McCourty, but as a first-year player with only a half-dozen returns, is relatively new and inexperienced to the job.
All three have lobbied for Slater’s go-ahead. Ultimately, though, it’s Slater’s call. Without saying a word, Slater has as big of an impact on a Patriots’ kickoff return as anybody else.
“I worry about catching the ball first, but we kind of have an agreement: If I’m coming forward, then I’m coming out,” Boyce said.
“Well, unless he tackles me.”