Have we seen the last of Earl Thomas as a Seahawks punt returner?
My guess is yes.
Coach Pete Carroll’s defiance to think conventionally is well known, and hoping an All-Pro safety can become comfortable with a task he hasn’t attempted in five years more than defied conventional thinking. It mocked conventional thinking.
But just because Carroll has a history of swimming against the current doesn’t mean he takes careless gambles. Using Thomas to return punts is a high-risk, low-reward proposition that violates any definition of common sense.
Before some shrewd, post-deadline maneuvering found return man Bryan Walters back on the roster and receiver Phil Bates temporarily off of it — the time had come, apparently, for the Hawks to fish or cut Bates — Carroll dismissed concerns of Thomas sustaining an injury moonlighting as a punt returner.
“You guys might live in that world, but we don’t,” Carroll said a few weeks ago. “Anybody can get hurt, at any time. You can get hurt stepping off a curb.”
True that, but the odds of Thomas getting hurt by stepping off a curb are severely longer than the odds of him getting hurt because he’s vacillated on whether or not to call a fair catch. Even the guys who do this stuff for a living —Walters, for instance — occasionally regret their determination to take the ball and run with it.
Beyond the injury potential for Thomas is the emotional consequence of botching a punt return at a pivotal moment in a key game. Relief pitchers who’ve been shelled insist a short memory is necessary, but relievers are one-trick ponies tethered to a Groundhog Day role. Would Thomas be distracted if a fumbled punt forces the Seahawks’ defense to make a three-and-out stop, moments after it made a three-and-out stop?
The most convincing case against Thomas as a punt returner is simple: Championship-caliber teams don’t need return men to make big plays. Championship-caliber teams just need return men to avoid making bad ones.
Here are some names of punt returners who have collected a Super Bowl ring since 2000: Karl Williams (2002 Buccaneers); Terrence Wilkins (2006 Colts) and Tramon Williams (2010 Packers). The trio shares a first letter of their last name and a punt-return average under 10 yards during their championship season.
The 2011 Giants won the Super Bowl relying on Aaron Ross as their primary punt returner. Ross finished with 99 yards, and I don’t mean 99 yards in the Super Bowl. He finished with 99 yards for the season.
More familiar to you — or at least to me — is Reggie Bush, he of the vacated Heisman Trophy and 130 punt-return yards for the 2009 Saints. Bush’s longest return that season was a mere 23 yards, and the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl. There is no connection to these dots, which is the point.
The Packers’ Desmond Howard was an exception to the history of punt returners more valued for their tendency to stay out of the headlines than their ability to create them. Howard ran back 58 punts for Mike Holmgren’s team in 1996, scoring three touchdowns while setting an NFL record of 875 yards. Howard returned another punt for a touchdown, against the 49ers, in the playoffs.
Howard continued to showcase his broken-field artistry during an MVP Super Bowl performance — he’s the only special-teams player to win the award — and yet the Packers didn’t stop him from signing a free-agent contract with the Raiders in 1997. The No. 1 single-season punt returner in NFL history ended up playing for six different teams over an 11-year career.
As a football fan, I can’t deny that a punt returned for a touchdown ranks among the most thrilling plays in sports. Nor can I deny that the likes of Devin Hester, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Brian Mitchell are worthy of inclusion in the same Pro Football Hall of Fame that recently inducted Raiders punter Ray Guy.
Golden Tate never took a punt to the end zone — no Seattle player has done that since Nate Burleson, in 1997 — but the former Seahawks’ receiver was productive last season on special teams, averaging 11.5 yards per return on 51 punts.
Those were solid numbers, if not elite, and they were responsible for the overreaction of Tate’s departure to the Lions as a free agent. The overreaction ended up thrusting Earl Thomas into the mix as Tate’s replacement.
Thomas is not a punt returner, not anymore. He’s a nonpareil safety. Tate’s replacement will be Walters, a reliable, last-minute solution to a quandary for a team with few of them.
Carroll made the saga interesting — doesn’t he always? — but when push came to shove, he saw a ball punted high in the sky, and 10 suicide-squad players charging the pillar of the league’s best defense, and the coach responded accordingly.
He called for a fair catch.