Kickoffs aren’t what they used to be. Rule changes have made kick returns far more challenging in this era of the NFL. But a good challenge often reaps a great reward and in Devin Hester, the Falcons may have one of the few players that can still change a game with one return.
With kicks sailing deeper into the endzone, fewer kicks are brought back out. Hester has a history of returning deep kicks in Chicago, but special teams coach Keith Armstrong said it’s unlikely he had a green light always, but the returner has some latitude to go if he thinks the time is right.
“He’s probably had an open glass in terms of when to make those decisions,” Armstrong said. “If you’re catching it going forward and you’re 8 (yards) deep and it’s the right team, go. If you’re catching it and the opponent’s pretty good, you might want to take a knee. I think it’s all relative and that’s an ever-changing concept from week to week.”
Hang time, conditions and other factors, Armstrong said, all come into play when deciding whether to return a kick or not. In Hester, the Falcons have a player that can create a positive return even on deep kicks, and that’s something not many teams have.
“The thing that you can get done with Devin that probably couldn’t get done in the past, I’d say, is you now have options as to whether you want to bring the ball out or not,” Armstrong said.
In the right situations, even an 8-yard deep kick is a returnable ball for Hester, the owner of numerous NFL return records. With Hester back deep, Armstrong said, the thought process has changed some this year. With one of the best returners in the history of the league on their side, taking a knee is something that will be seen a little less frequently.
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Experience is a great thing to have on your side and Hester’s got about as much as a player can have. Armstrong said Hester, like veterans at other positions, has an advantage because they’ve seen so much in the league. Hester may not be faster than a cheetah anymore, but he’s seen a lot, and that experience goes a long way in the return game.
“You’ve got to have a sense of feel as a returner when to fair catch it, when to return it, all that type of stuff,” Armstrong said. “All those things come into play. When to take a chance. When to play it off a bounce. He’s got reps that you can’t replace. His play time has given him such an advantage over so many people because he’s done it so long. He’ll see a ball and say ‘I’ve seen this ball before. This is the one.’ He knows what the homerun ball looks like.”