Perhaps it was the early start, playing in the “knee-high” league when he was just 7 years old, and his father – also his coach – sent Patrick Peterson back to return his first punt.
Maybe it was the way punt returns was part of the situational drills his father would put him through during high school, when Peterson would be told there was, say, a minute and 13 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, his team was behind by two points and he had to make something happen as he faded back for a kick.
Or instead it could just be a gift, this natural ability to snare the ball calmly, seemingly at the last second as would-be tacklers buzz around him, a knowledge flooding his brain because “that’s when I know I will have a chance to get my hands on the ball and make a play.”
The Cardinals’ No. 1 draft pick may still be learning his craft at cornerback, but it’s hard to believe he has anything else to improve upon as a punt returner. He leads the NFL with a 19.1-yard average on 15 returns in seven games, with two touchdowns already – one from 89 yards that provided the winning points in the season opener, the second from 82 yards in Baltimore last weekend that should have been the highlight of an upset win but instead turned into a loss.
Already, Peterson is just one shy of the franchise’s career punt return touchdown mark, with Ollie Matson and Vai Sikahema with three each. Peterson is just seven games into his Cardinals’ career.
If anything, he may be producing his own self-fulfilling prophecy, after he talked about – before the regular-season opener – how he had promised his college teammates it would only take six games for teams to avoid kicking to him. He made no such promises for the NFL, but Rams punter Donnie Jones noted this week “we definitely want to control him.”
Is that possible, without simply kicking it out of bounds?
“It’s amazing how comfortable he is back there, he looks so confident,” Cardinals kickoff return man
Against the Ravens, Peterson acted as if he was going to let the ball hit the ground, he was so nonchalant as it spiraled down to him. That’s on purpose, of course, refusing to tip the coverage men that he was going to get the ball until the very last moment. He has no fear he won’t get his hands up in time. It’s never a problem.
Cardinals special teams coach Kevin Spencer was a part of the Raiders coaching staff in the mid-1990s when Tim Brown returned punts, and to Spencer, no one compared to Brown’s natural ability to catch a punt.
That is, until Peterson came along, a player “so graceful and fluid catching the ball” and explosive as a runner.
I love carrying the ball, the feel of the football in my hands,” Peterson said. “It’s like my child. You want to take care of your child. It’s fun to have the pigskin in your hands.”
Peterson thinks he has opened some eyes around the Cardinals with his skills. Coaches and players knew Peterson could do the job, but this well? The Cardinals had a solid punt return man in Steve Breaston, but his impact wasn’t the same as Peterson, not with the combination of speed and strength (Peterson slipped five tackles during his Baltimore runback).
Spencer marveled at Peterson’s Carolina return, after the Cardinals had called for a punt rush rather than a return. Peterson read the punt as returnable and made something happen anyway. It nearly happened the following week in Washington on the final play of the game. The Cards went after a punt and Peterson took it from his own end zone and nearly looked like he would spring it for a miracle win, until the unblocked punter got in his way.
“We talk about hang times and getting a returnable ball and all that,” Spencer said, “but he is just blessed and makes really good decisions. I’d like to say I take credit for that, but it’s Patrick.”
Expecting to break one every return isn’t realistic. Peterson expects it anyway.
“We have to make something happen,” Peterson said. “We have to put the team in good field position or get in the end zone. Anything else is not even an option.”