Dave Boling: Question of Great Punt Returner Debate a luxury for Seahawks

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comMay 29, 2014 

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.

dave.boling@thenewstribune.com

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