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Boling: Punt return debate a first-world problem

Post by Todd Dybas / The News Tribune on May 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm with 32 Comments »
May 30, 2014 1:03 pm

Doug Baldwin mentioning on Thursday that he is also being considered for punt returns reminds us this is still unsettled. It likely will be for a while.

This isn’t just a generic spot to be filled by the Seahawks. Last year, Golden Tate was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate at the position when he averaged 11.5 yards per return, which was ninth in the league. Baltimore’s Tandon Doss led the league with 15.6 yards per return.

This also shouldn’t be a position where touchdowns are expected to come with any frequency.

Of the 23 punt returners in the league who qualified to be on last season’s leaderboard, 10 scored a touchdown. Only one scored more than once (Kansas City’s Dexter McCluster, who scored twice). So, the best punt returners in the NFL score a touchdown 1.6 percent of the time.

The flip side of that, is a reliable punt returner who can get a solid gain and retain the ball may have heightened value on the Seahawks because of their playing style. Field position and controlling turnovers are priorities to them.

Which leads to the consideration of risk when placing Earl Thomas, the highest-paid safety in the league, back there. Digging around for injuries from last season, I quickly found two. The Browns lost wide receiver and punt returner Travis Benjamin last season when he tore his ACL on a punt return. The injury came from a cut, not from being hit. Washington’s Richard Crawford was lost for the year when his right knee buckled under him during a hit in the preseason.

Any time there is an increase in frequency, there will be an increase in risk. As our Dave Boling mentions below, Pete Carroll isn’t one to approach things with concerns about the negative at the fore. Rather, he believes it will all be wonderful.

From Boling:

RENTON — Maybe you can remember about this time two years ago, when the crucial debate regarding the Seattle Seahawks was whether they could scrape together a functioning quarterback from the trio of Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and a little-known third-round rookie named Russell Wilson.

Which among them might give the Hawks the best chance to improve, even slightly, on their 7-9 season of 2011?

Now, fans are getting heated about which All-Pro player they might use to return punts.

This is what is known as a “first world” problem of a defending Super Bowl champion.

Coach Pete Carroll opened the Great Punt Returner Debate at the first organized team activity practice Tuesday afternoon.

Golden Tate gave Seattle an NFL top-10 returner last season, averaging 11.5 yards a return, with a long of 71 yards. A couple of breakaway efforts helped flip the field for the Hawks at times when games were in doubt.

A punt returner gets a lot of work for a team with the best defense in the league. Tate returned 51 punts, second most in the NFL.

But he left for the Detroit Lions via free agency. And a number of established standouts jumped in line to try to replace him.

Included are safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and receiver Percy Harvin, all of whom have been named All-Pros.

It seems a question of which luxury to enjoy. Thomas and Harvin have true elite quickness. Sherman is a ridiculous athlete.

But the immediate response from many fans: Cornerstone starters under big contracts are too valuable to risk on plays that allow defenders 40 yards to build up a head of steam toward their heroes’ knee ligaments.

Fair debate. And the logic for a team at the top would be to avoid mistakes that could reduce their top-end manpower.

But playing it safe is not how these Seahawks were built. They’ve been aggressive in every regard.

If he had to choose now, Carroll said, the job would go to Thomas, who also happens to be the heart of the best defense in the league, who just signed a contract to make him the game’s highest-paid safety.

Thomas is such a competitor that he said he was on the verge of yelling at president Barack Obama last week when he mentioned the San Francisco 49ers while the Seahawks were being honored at the White House.

“Why would he speak about the 49ers?” Thomas said. “This is not about them. This is our day.”

If that’s how Thomas reacts to the commander in chief, do you want to be the one to tell him you don’t think he should be the punt returner?

Thomas said he has waited for the opportunity to return punts because he wants to score touchdowns: “I want to impact the game as much as possible.”

What about the fans who worry for his health?

“I don’t care what they think, you know. … I can help this team, and I know I can,” he said.

Harvin’s kickoff return touchdown in the Super Bowl was enough evidence of how dangerous he can be in the open field. But fielding punts is a different discipline. The ball flies differently, and the coverage is on the returner more quickly.

“I’m just practicing it right now,” Harvin said. “Hopefully, if I could get it on lock, I’ll be back there. Every coach I’ve had always wanted me to put that in my tool box.”

Carroll said Sherman has lobbied for the job, too, but Carroll also added that he wants to see what little-used receiver Bryan Walters can do with a chance.

“If we had to start today, Earl Thomas would be the first guy back there, and he’s really excited about that,” Carroll said. “He’s a guy that has the most catches for us, but I’m anxious to see how Bryan Walters fits into that. He’s got experience in his background. Percy Harvin is out there vying for it, and Richard Sherman would tell you he’s the best one, and he catches the ball really well.”

There is precedence for concern. The last time the Seahawks had such a player at safety, it was the mid-1980s, and Kenny Easley was the NFL defensive player of the year. He was a superbly athletic player and a big hitter who also wanted to help the team win in every way possible.

He volunteered to take over punt returning duties in 1985 and, while returning a punt, injured his ankle and missed the last three games. Fair to assume that injury, along with others, contributed to the shortening of his career.

At the time, coach Chuck Knox said he had never seen a player of Easley’s caliber want to be so involved on special teams.

But the culture of the Seahawks these days is that most of the star players already contribute on special teams, with Thomas and Kam Chancellor on kickoff coverage and Sherman jamming the gunners on the punt return.

It is another chance to be injured, certainly. And the reward must be weighed against the risk. How few touchdowns might Thomas add as a punt returner versus the many he saves as a safety?

The most interesting element in the debate is how it reflects the competitive nature of these players and how hungry they are to help the team win.

Whether they give in and let Thomas or Harvin return punts or not, it’s their eagerness to do it that makes them play like champions.

Leave a comment Comments → 32
  1. FleaFlicker says:

    Have to admit, the idea of ET returning punts makes me skittish. I’d much prefer a Kearse, Lockette, or Norwood back there.

    But, doesn’t Arizona use Patrick Peterson for punt coverage? It wouldn’t be totally crazy to use a safety.

    Whoever it is, I hope it’s an all-season thing. Remember that muffed return that lost the game for Denver at New England? That was Welker subbing in for Holliday.

  2. Macabrevity says:

    It’s not just the chance of an injury occurring on the play, but also the extra wear and tear on ligaments. If any of you guys ever had to stay off a leg for an extended period of time, you might’ve found that just when you thought you were back, the other leg starts hurting from over-use, bad use, etc. I don’t expect Percy to do it, because I’m really starting to believe he doesn’t track the ball well (hence lack of deep targets) and I definitely don’t want to wear down any LoB guys. I think Baldwin is the best bet, reliable hands, decision-making, and good initial quickness, he might actually be pretty effective, even if he won’t outrun as many people in the open field.

  3. WiscCory says:

    Flea – one of my favorite Seahawk memories was watching safety Kenny Easley returning punts with his long stride.

    The game is so different now, though, that we could never risk losing ET to injury on ST. His value is way too high for defensive success.

    I can’t wait until the AZ games next year, and the thought of Peterson on offense being covered by Sherman. Game on.

  4. AZ just lost a heck of a defender for the entire season in Washington.

  5. Southendzone says:

    I wonder if Washington gets a break from the drug testing during his suspension? At least then he can get as high he wants for 11 months, get clean for 30 days and back to work in 2015.

  6. DisplacedSeahawkFan says:

    No just no, but hell no, should E.T., Richard Sherman, or Percy Harvin, return punts. The risk of injury outweighs any benefit. Secondly, because of envy, hatred, or what have you, you’d think that opposing players would try that much harder to injure one of those guys. Moreover, how stupid would it be to lose a highest paid player (which they all are in some form or another) to an injury that occurred during a special teams play?

    To have him earn a roster spot, and to compete for the backup Q.B. position next year, I say give Terrelle Pryor a shot at returning punts. He has the speed and athleticism for it. Plus, it ensures him a roster spot. Also, why isn’t Christine Michael in the mix for punt returner? If not one of them, then, it should be a 3rd, or 4th, string receiver–someone whose loss wouldn’t be catastrophic to the team.

  7. Skavage says:

    LOL ok this is totally off topic but it sure put a smile on my face today. It may have been shared before so if so my apologies.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PhV9DzkV-s

  8. FleaFlicker says:

    Skavage, I saw that as well. The last part (0:56 to 1:04) just totally cracked me up.

  9. Hawks85 says:

    With all the parity in the NFL is there such things as first world problems? ST is 1/3 of the game, and the Hawks lost a really good PR in Tate. Tate swung the flow of momentum of a couple games last year, and common sense dictates you don’t risk ET, DB, or RS getting hurt.

    It maybe not a big of a problem as Hawks losing the leading WR on the team in Tate, the heart of the defense in Big Red, two really good CB (Browner, Thurmond) or 11 sacks a year with CC, but it does matter. Its really the major question on ST since SH killed it last year, and PH is a way better KR than Turbin(yuck).

    I’d like to see CM give it a go, and Lockette, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it was one of our all pro DB. RS/ET want to be bigger than the sport, and you don’t surpass D.Sanders without returning punts.

  10. I like how how the Seahawks use starters on special teams. So far it hasn’t hurt them and has helped a lot. Returning a punt is probably even more dangerous than, for example, Sherman jamming the gunners on a punt return, but it is still within the same philosophy. Put the best players out there. Other than the QB, nobody should “protected”. You don’t pay a player huge money only to reduce his playing time to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.

  11. bsinnitt says:

    As of now I would expect to see Richardson or Baldwin receiving the majority with Harvin coming in for returns at crucial moments in the game.

  12. thursday says:

    The thing that bothers me most about ET returning punts is not whether he’ll get injured, but IF he does, the impact his loss would have on the defense. I think that impact is a lot greater than a loss of Harvin or even Sherman. And yeah, you can’t tell me opposing teams won’t see that and weigh taking a shot.

  13. GeorgiaHawk says:

    Mr bounty of the Rams would never consider taking cheap shots at our players.
    Would he?

  14. Patrick Peterson not withstanding, it never makes sense to have guys who aren’t used to handling and securing the ball handle PR or KR duties. I can’t imagine that Earl is sooooo much better at PR than every other guy who already plays offence. Pick Baldwin. Pick Harvin.

  15. Singularitarian says:

    Lol, the nfl is a first world problem

  16. EzraMelech says:

    As a coach, I very much doubt “possible injury” is not even a consideration. Of course the team does things to minimize the risk of injury. But that doesn’t mean “NOT PLAYING” someone because there is a chance they will get hurt. They minimize risk by teaching proper technique, teaching proper nutrition, workouts, rehab etc.

    PC has always shown he values competition, so I expect honestly for the “best player” to win the job. PERIOD. I’ll give an example, Russell Wilson started out running without fear!! It’s one of the reasons he gets so many yards. If the team was “overly” concerned about injuries they would have directed him to not run or scramble and they would do all they can “line adjustments, blocking schemes etc to minimize the need for him to run. Instead what did they do? Pete let him keep doing his thing but taught him to slide more often and/or get out of bounds before he gets smacked hard.

    This is all my opinion of course based on what i’ve seen and what I’ve heard PC talk about. So take it for what it’s worth *shrug

    My2CentsWorth

  17. I have to admit it makes me nervous to have ET as a target back there returning punts. All the worrying about safety of franchise players aside, I truly believe Doug Baldwin will end up being the PR. IMO, he’s the logical choice, and he flipped the field against the Niners in the NFCCG, even though that was a kickoff return. He has the best hands, and great quickness to make a couple initial shimmy moves even though he’s not going to burn anyone with pure speed.

    You never want to play scared, and I don’t think the thought would even occur to PC’s warriors, but consider that LaMichael James was almost decapitated on a PR by Lockette, and sustained a neck injury because of the collision. If we keep our 2 draft picks, Lockette could very well get picked up by the Niners again. Ask yourself if you want someone like Ricardo Lockette, as fast as he is, colliding full speed with Earl or Percy. I’m scared for Doug too, but at least he’s used to the contact and he knows how to take a hit.

    I wish Christine Michael would take charge here, but I don’t think he’s got the sure-handedness that is required for the job. A dark horse candidate is Bryan Walters, even though I feel it’s a waste of a roster spot for someone just to return punts when he’s not even that fast.
    Ironically this KR TD was against us in 2011:

    http://www.chargers.com/multimedia/videos/Cant-Miss-Play-Bryan-Walters/b8d9a038-2162-4858-b4ee-a2f8f1b82204

  18. Anyone else notice how many other players around the league are getting popped for violations? From Daryl Washington to Josh Gordon, Will Hill ( again). And we’re supposed to be the pot smoking Sea-Adderall cheaters? Me thinks the recent rash of violations is a league-wide problem, and Roger Goodell better get his head out of his bunghole fast, if he wants to maintain the brand name of “The Shield”.

  19. EzraMelech says:

    For what it’s worth SI has an interesting article on this situation Paul Richardson or DB for Punt Returns

    Just another “writers” opinion, but a good read nonetheless.

    My2CentsWorth

  20. GeorgiaHawk says:

    In a pinch yes, however I don’t want to see Baldwin back there either.

    It has to be a player that is more of a expendable commodity to the team like the other punt returners of the past imo.

  21. seatowntp says:

    It does seem like P-Rich would be ideal as a punt returner. I know he has only had one return in college, but he has the tangibles – quickness, speed, hands, and elusiveness.

  22. Audible says:

    I think it will take Paul Richardson approximately 4.32 seconds to earn the job.

  23. montanamike2 says:

    Singularitarian-Lol, the nfl is a first world problem.
    profoundly true!
    I met up with Bobby and Slave with his lovely family last night. Once again meeting up with bloggers from this site was an awesome experience. They both face life’s pressures and up and downs on a daily basis, i could easily see how someone might need to vent once in a while, both are great guys though and i’m glad to call them Hawks brethren. Amazing guys that i’d meet up with anytime.

  24. Last year I think Lane looked good at pr. In preseason. This is a perfect example why hawks are the best . Special teams are not neglected. Used like a weapon.

  25. jawpeace says:

    I been thinking about the punt return man the last few days and at first I was in the don’t use Thomas or Sherman camp. But after debating both sides and reading much; I have had a reversal.

    The main reason for the reversal is that by saying, ‘you don’t want the best returner back there if he is so and so’, is that you are devaluing special teams. It takes all 3 phases operating well to win a game. I think that Pete preaches this and to say you are the best punt returner but since you are our starting safety or CB you are to valuable to play as a returner, would be contradicting to his message.

    The only thing that would change this if the battle is very close, lets say between Richardson and ET. For instance ET grades out as B grade return man and PR grades out as B-. Then I would favor PR for the difference is not great enough to risk your super star 51 extra shots. But if ET surprises and grades as an A- and the next best is a full grade away B-, then give the job to the best player.

  26. Macabrevity says:

    montanamike – this is one of the most intelligent online sportsfan communities I’ve seen, and I’ve perused quite a few. I feel bad because I rarely have anything great to add, but I definitely appreciate the contribution of most of the members here, and I do enjoy participating.

    It’s like Brock and Danny were saying with Clayton on the show “all great things come from TNT”

  27. montanamike2 says:

    Macabrevity, you do add something to this blog, nothing to feel bad about.

  28. AZBubba71 says:

    The best punt returner, in my opinion, for the Seahawks was Paul Johns. Always felt like he was going to break one with each kick in his direction.

    Best kickoff returner…Zachary Dixon. Didn’t have breakaway speed but would routinely return kickoffs somewhere between the 35 and 50 yard lines.

    I don’t like the idea of using a probable future Hall of Famer at his position and possibly subjecting him to a cheap shot while he attempts a fair catch. Use someone with speed that has decent hands who will secure the ball first…and isn’t extremely valuable to the overall health of the franchise. Richardson, Lockette, Baldwin all come to mind.

  29. montanamike2 says:

    Yeah those cheap shots against a core member can be not just a game changer but a season or career changer. I don’t believe Pete too much about this anyways, he’s probably sparking a fire under someone to step up.

  30. JZombie says:

    I just want someone who can comfortably secure the ball. I forget if he took kicks or punts, but when the Hawks were trying Winston Guy out on returns, I don’t recall him having the greatest time holding on. Fortunately that experiment didn’t last long.

  31. montanamike2 says:

    Turbin returning punts would be a bad idea.

  32. Saw enough of Turbin on KR to never see him again as anything other than a back up tailback. Walter nor Lockette will make the team this year. I don’t like to see a defensive player as our return man either.

    My first choice is Ricardson on punts and harvin on kicks and angry doug the fall back for both.

    CM might be a good choice as he’s fast powerful and elusive. Has CM ever returned punts before?

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