Tyler Lockett is back from the broken tibia and fibula that put him in the hospital last Christmas Eve.
Lockett has caught at least one pass in each of the Seahawks 10 games this season, but it wasn’t until Monday night that the mercurial return man resembled a mercurial return man.
Atlanta had taken an early 7-0 lead at CenturyLink Field when the Falcons’ Matt Bryant kicked the ball to Lockett at the Seattle 3-yard line. In a display of synchronicity rarely seen since the NFL implemented rules changes designed to discourage kickoff returns, Lockett noticed an unobstructed lane on the left and turned on the turbos.
By the time Desmond Trufant finally pushed Lockett out of bounds at the Atlanta 40-yard line, it was clear the Hawks again had access to their not-so-secret weapon.
“We knew it was going to come,” Lockett said Wednesday of his 57-yard kick return, Seattle’s longest of the season. “Everybody did a great job on their assignments. The front line was amazing. I just had to make sure to follow the blocks.”
A scouting report on Bryant helped.
“We knew that the kicker had a hurt ankle, and was going to have a hard time to plant his leg when he kicked it,” said Lockett. “After that first one, everyone knew we had something special going on.”
Definition of something special: Subsequent kickoff returns by Lockett of 37 yards, 39 yards, 37 yards and 25 yards. Lockett’s 197 total yards on kickoffs — a career high — earned the third-year veteran from Kansas State his second NFC special teams player of the week award.
“It’s been a challenge for Tyler, one that he’s remarkably suited to handle,” said head coach Pete Carroll. “He’s worked constantly on staying right, going to the training room. But it’s been a challenge because he’s been a kid who’s always been healthy, always been full speed. He spends more time on the practice field for us than anybody, but he hasn’t been able to do as much of that as he’d like because of his recovery.”
Lockett sustained the injury in the 2016 regular-season finale, when he caught a 25-yard pass against Arizona that initially was ruled a touchdown. The call got reversed, but as doctors hustled onto the field to put Lockett’s broken leg into an air cast, the last thing on his mind was how the booth review deprived him of a TD reception.
“Your mind-set changes after you go into surgery, because you’ve got to start over. You’ve got to learn how to walk again,” said Lockett. “Nobody wants to have to do that. But they told me I was going to be able to play again.
“Leon Washington went through the same thing,” continued Lockett, referring to the former Seahawks return specialist, “and he came back even stronger. I didn’t want to hear people talk about me and say ‘he was great, but after the injury, it was over.’ No. I wasn’t going to let that injury define the rest of my career.”
Kickoff returns that put strong, fast athletes on a collision course are the most dangerous aspect of a dangerous sport. Amid speculation the NFL was prepared to ban them, the league’s competition committee tweaked the touchback rule instead.
Kicks downed in the end zone traditionally meant the offense would take possession at its 20-yard line. Touchbacks now advance the ball to the 25, a subtle adjustment meant to give returners pause about returning deep kicks.
The rule seems to be working, and it’s conceivable kickoffs still could be phased out. In the meantime, Carroll marvels about the sheer gumption required to return a kick.
“Not everybody in the world can do that,” he said. “Catch the ball back around the end zone and take off as fast as they can, against other people running after them as as fast as they can, trying to take your head off.
“Few people can do that with a kind of commitment, willingness and consistency.”
Lockett has been doing that for the entirety of his football life.
“The biggest thing about a return is being able to trust it,” he said. “If you go about it tiptoeing, you’re not getting everything from the return you can possibly get.”
Lockett doesn’t tiptoe on the field, just as he didn’t tiptoe through a recovery regimen that began with a healthy attitude.
“You’ve got to get your mind right each and every day,” he said. “Eventually, the injury will be gone and you’ll be back to normal.”
Tyler Lockett is back to normal. Highlight clips await featuring the master of what could be looming as a lost art.