A brand-new bathroom inside a $1.1 billion stadium must be a wonderful place to be. Just don’t risk visiting one of them Sunday night when Green Bay’s Mason Crosby is kicking off to the Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson.
Since the moment Patterson joined this NFC North rivalry seven games into his 2013 rookie season, kickoffs have been an adventure. Good, bad, ugly or historically great, it’s been sort of like watching to see whether the snake charmer contains the cobra or needs his assistant to call 9-1-1.
“I think big players come out in big games,” said Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, one of Patterson’s blockers. “I think that’s kind of how Cordarrelle is. If he gets juiced up before that kick is in the air, I think he can do some pretty amazing things.”
Patterson has led the league in return average twice in three seasons. His career average is a franchise-best 30.4 yards after Sunday’s 61-yarder marked the team-record 11th time he has gone 50 yards or better. He also has four career touchdowns, one shy of Percy Harvin’s team record.
This past offseason, the NFL, for safety reasons, tried to reduce the number of kick returns by moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line. Obviously, the league underestimated how much coaches value those 5 extra yards and are willing to scheme and scrap for every last inch of them by kicking the ball higher and shorter in an effort to make the tackle inside the 25.
Vikings kicker Blair Walsh already has smashed the team record for touchbacks by a kicker. On Sunday, he floated the opening kickoff to the Tennessee 10-yard line. In seven kickoffs, Walsh kicked four of them short of the goal line.
Leaguewide, the percentage of returns was up in the preseason and in Week 1. According to ESPN, the touchback percentage through Sunday’s games was .618, compared with .689 for Week 1 last season.
The percentage went up when the two Monday night games produced 14 touchbacks out of 18 kickoffs. But clearly the NFL’s intent has produced the opposite reaction.
In Tennessee, the Titans kicked off three times. Two were touchbacks, while the other one landed in Patterson’s hands at the 5. A combination of scheme, blocking and Patterson’s 220 pounds of explosiveness moved the ball 61 yards to set up a field goal.
“There was a little bit of wind, so that might’ve had a factor in it,” said coach Mike Zimmer, unconvinced the Titans were trying to challenge Patterson. “[Teams will] probably try to kick some out when we get indoors.”
But they won’t always succeed. Case in point: Oct. 27, 2013.
Tim Masthay opened that game as the Packers’ kickoff specialist. It was in the Metrodome, the only one of Patterson’s six Packers games played indoors.
Masthay launched the opening kickoff 9 yards deep. Seconds later, Patterson had covered 109 yards to put his name in the NFL record book for as long as fields are 100 yards and end zones are 10.
The Packers have been scrambling ever since. Masthay was pulled from kickoff duties during that game. Crosby notched three touchbacks and blooped a short kick that Toby Gerhart returned 19 yards to the 27. But Patterson also tagged Crosby with a 57-yarder while finishing with 228 yards on five returns.
In six games against the Packers, Patterson has 661 yards on 18 returns (36.7-yard average). He’s had returns of 109, 70, 57, 52, 51 and 42.
“Is that good?” Patterson joked. “I never look at my averages. It’s just something I do. It’s something I like to do, and I have fun with it. Every chance I get with the ball in my hands, I just try to make a good play. And hats off to the 10 guys in front of me.”
The Packers have tried different things against Patterson the past three seasons. They’ve tried directional kicks, squibs and pooch kicks, including a flubbed 25-yarder that went out of bounds to give the Vikings the ball at the 40.
Of course, Patterson has helped them out on occasion. He fumbled the ball away on the 70-yarder, and was flagged 15 yards for head-butting Crosby at the end of the 52-yarder.
“I don’t know what teams are going to do,” said Matt Asiata, another one of Patterson’s blockers. “With Cordarrelle back there, teams are going to second-guess themselves after what happened on Sunday. I think the Packers are going to kick it out of the end zone or not kick it to him. We’ll take the ball at the 25 if they want to give it to us there. But I hope they kick it to him.”