FOXBOROUGH — Whenever he meets with a prospective player, Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge asks the same question.
“Did you grow up playing baseball?”
The question helps him identify which players might be able to return punts, a skill Judge likens to playing center field because it requires tracking the ball in the air. He may have been asking that question lately since the Patriots’ punt returner depth has been tested.
Julian Edelman is suspended, Danny Amendola is a Dolphin, Braxton Berrios is on injured reserve, and Riley McCarron got cut Monday after muffing a punt Sunday.
Simply sticking a kickoff returner such as Cordarrelle Patterson back to return punts isn’t the best solution since the tasks are more different than meets the eye.
“A lot of people assume that, ‘Well, if you can catch a kickoff, you can catch a punt.’ And they’re two very, very different plays,” Judge said. “They’re two very, very different balls to field.”
Fielding a punt requires a lot more decision making. Kickoffs are fairly uniform, coming end-over-end from the 35-yard line, except for uncommon situations such as after a safety, when the kicking team kicks off from the 20-yard line.
Punts come in various forms — end-over-end, spirals either way, spiral punts that don’t actually turn over — and have to be tracked carefully while they’re in the air. Punts can curve, break or tail off in different directions based on whether the nose of the ball is up or has turned down, whether the punter is right-footed or left-footed, and what the wind and weather are doing. Punts also come from all over the field, and different situations call for different types of punts.
A punt returner has to know the style and the skill set of the punter and what the on-field situation calls for. Then he has to follow the ball in the air, like a center fielder.
There’s some strong anecdotal evidence in the Boston area backing up Judge’s comparison of the two positions. Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. returned punts and kicks for his eighth grade football team in Virginia.
“The ball coming at you from home plate is almost like coming from the kicker or punter,” Bradley said. “You need to understand what’s around you, whether it’s the wall at Fenway or even one of your teammates if you are going to the gaps.”
Bradley noted that a center fielder has to communicate with the other outfielders to “make sure we don’t take each other’s heads off,” the way a punt returner has to be aware of his blocking and know when to make a fair catch.
That’s another difference between punt and kickoff returning.
“You can catch a kickoff and the closest guy is probably going to be 25, 30 yards away, where punts could be 30 yards away, he could be three inches away,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Punt returners, then, have to track the ball while also being aware of where the rush is coming from and if their blockers are in position to stop it.
Video: The difference in kickoff and punt returns
On the baseball field, Bradley can look at a deep fly ball, run to where he thinks it will go, then pick it back up, but that’s a rare skill.
“Judging a punt is a very difficult thing to do, much more difficult than most people would think,” Judge said. “While a lot of times people have the kind of conception of just go back there and catch it, there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot more variables in catching a punt and it’s definitely something that takes a lot of courage to do to sit on back there with your eyes in the air, trusting your blockers in front of you and having the awareness around you to go ahead and make the play.”
So, if it’s so hard, how do you teach someone to return punts? According to Belichick and Judge, the main answer is with time. Once the ball is in his hands, a good amount of athleticism comes into play, but before that point tracking punts is a learned skill.
“I feel like I can catch punts,” Belichick said, noting that he’s caught “hundreds” in practice.
Edelman came to the Patriots in 2009 having returned only six punts in college at Kent State, which, according to an ESPN piece from 2014, he only did his senior year after begging coaches to let him show off his versatility in front of a few scouts who were in the stands.
He might as well have been starting from scratch as an NFL rookie. According to the same ESPN story, Edelman was booed at a training camp practice after dropping multiple punts. Since then, Edelman has returned 186 punts for 2,198 yards and four touchdowns, counting regular season and playoffs. On Friday, Belichick gave Edelman’s name as the best example of a player who has caught the punt return job and run with it.
“It takes seeing a lot of punts,” Belichick said.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who was there in 2009 when Edelman was first learning under then-special teams coach Scott O’Brien, remembers how much time went into it.
“I think I learned a lot about that, about punts, from that experience — listening to Scott coach Julian up, talking about the nose of the ball turning over, the difference between lefties and righties and how their balls tail off,” Slater said.
It was helpful from his perspective as a gunner because, depending on the situation, he sometimes tracks the ball, too. Slater said that on “plus-50” punts, where the Patriots are punting from their side of the 50-yard line, he keeps his eyes on the returner and lets the returner take him to the ball. On “minus-50” punts, which are more about precision, he follows the ball. Gunners don’t have to guess and track the way returners do, though, since they know the play call and what type of punt is coming.
Since the Red Sox probably aren’t willing to loan Bradley out to return punts, and Belichick is busy on the sideline, the Patriots have to find a solution at the position until Edelman returns in Week 5.
One thought had been Patterson (football, basketball, and track in high school) because of what he can do once the ball is in his hands.
Patterson has gotten some practice as a punt returner and said he’d do it if asked by the coaching staff, but tracking the ball is still foreign to him.
“Punts, it’s something I have to work on a lot,” Patterson said. “A lot more.”
Patrick Chung has done it in games and Chris Hogan has done it in practices. On Monday, after McCarron was released, Chung seemed the likely fill-in, until the next day when the Patriots signed running back Kenjon Barner, who returned 27 punts for the Eagles last season.
Barner first learned punt returning in college at Oregon. He said it took him a year and a half to feel comfortable doing it. He also played baseball in high school.
“Yeah,” he said. “Center field.”