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Cordarrelle Patterson Is the NFL’s Kickoff Return King and the Last of His Kind

The Bears specialist is an all-time great kick returner playing in an era when football is trying to eliminate kickoffs. What will be his legacy?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Imagine the life of an incredible silent film actor who peaked right as talkies came about, or the plight of a virtuosic jazz trumpeter who came of age at the start of the rock ’n’ roll revolution. That actor or trumpet player could become the greatest of their time, or even the greatest of all time, but would still likely struggle to gain recognition in an era when the world had stopped celebrating their talents. This is the burden of Chicago Bears specialist Cordarrelle Patterson, the greatest kickoff return man of all time, peaking just as the NFL tries to eliminate kickoff returns.

Before we go further, let’s get this out of the way: I know that Devin Hester is the greatest return man of all time. It’s not close, and I wouldn’t dare say otherwise. But Hester was the best at returning punts—a skill defined by shifty movements, lightning-fast directional changes, and immediate acceleration. Patterson is the best at returning kickoffs—a skill based on straight-line speed and more gradual directional shifts. Patterson can’t return punts. In fact, he’s returned only one in his seven-year NFL career. Yet while Hester returned 295 kickoffs and brought five back for touchdowns, Patterson has returned 185 kickoffs and taken seven to the house. Hester was great, and Patterson is more than twice as likely to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

Patterson’s seventh career kick-return touchdown came last Sunday against the Saints, and it was captured by Skycam in breathtaking fashion. We see our protagonist hurtling toward us, bursting through a sea of chaos and violence and leaving it behind in a dark-blue blaze. Patterson weaves past some defenders, powers through others with momentum, and beats even more with pure speed. Replaying this is like watching a movie scene—it’s the best filmed kickoff return since Hines Ward turned around to see that Bane had helped out Gotham City’s blocking scheme.

Patterson now sits at second on two all-time kickoff return lists. He’s just one touchdown away from tying the league’s career record of eight, a mark shared by Leon Washington and Joshua Cribbs. In terms of productivity, though, Patterson is already superior to both: Cribbs took 426 returns to get his eight scores and Washington took 292. Patterson isn’t even at 200.

There have been 43 kickoffs returned for a touchdown since Patterson was drafted in 2013. Twenty-six players have one, five players have two, and Patterson has seven, a total that accounts for 16.3 percent of the league’s kick-return touchdowns since he’s been a part of it. In an NFL where 0.6 percent of kickoff returns go for scores, Patterson reaches the end zone on 3.8 percent of his returns, better than six times the league average.

And Patterson is one of just two players to average 30 yards per kick return in his career (30.2). The other is Gale Sayers (30.6), the Hall of Fame Bears running back who played in the 1960s and ’70s. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 162 players have returned at least 100 career kickoffs. Of those 162, 160 have averaged between 18.5 and 27.0 yards per return. Deion Sanders, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, checks in at 22.7. Dante Hall, who registered six kick-return scores, sits at 23.8. Devin Hester is at 24.9, Darren Sproles is at 25.2, and Jacoby Jones is at 27.0. Percy Harvin peeks out over the 27-yard mark at 27.2 … and then there’s Patterson, 3 full yards per return better than any other player in 50 years.

As the NFL tries to phase the kickoff return out of the game, Patterson is the undisputed kickoff-return king. He will be the last and perhaps greatest player ever to hold the title.

Patterson measured 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds at the 2013 NFL draft combine, and ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash. Long, lean, and speedy, the Tennessee product was regarded as a prototypical wide receiver prospect, but his skills from the line of scrimmage just weren’t there. A Bleacher Report scouting report said that Patterson’s weaknesses included “inconsistent hands, too many drops” and noted that he is a “raw, unrefined route runner.” Ah, so besides the fact that his two weaknesses are the two most important things about playing wide receiver, he was fine. Still, the Vikings were enamored of his otherworldly athletic profile, and elected to take him with the 29th pick in that year’s first round.

And he disappointed. Patterson tallied just 469 receiving yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. Since 2000, 26 first-round wide receivers have played all 16 games in their debut season; Patterson ranks 20th among them in rookie-season receiving yards. And that total still represents his career high in both receiving yards and touchdowns. In 2015, Patterson was healthy but couldn’t crack the Minnesota depth chart, attracting two measly targets all season. Perhaps more disappointing was his strangely low yards-per-reception figure. In 2016, he averaged just 8.7 yards per catch—130th out of 138 receivers with at least 10 catches. As ascendant wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen excelled for the Vikings—a fifth-round pick and an undrafted player, respectively—Minnesota gave up on Patterson, its talented-but-unrefined first-rounder from years ago.

Since 2016, Patterson has played for three teams in three years. He spent 2017 with the Raiders, failing to record any receiving or return touchdowns but scoring twice as a runner. He spent 2018 with the Patriots, who furthered that concept by deploying Patterson as an unusually tall running back. After helping New England win a Super Bowl, Patterson joined the Bears, where he again seems to be more useful as a running back than a receiver—he has 11 carries against eight targets this fall.

All along, though, Patterson’s returning ability has made him relevant. As a rookie, he set a record by returning a kickoff 109 yards—a mark that will stand so long as the NFL field of play is 100 yards long and the end zone is 10 yards deep.

Even when he was all but shunned from the Vikings’ depth chart in 2015, he scored two kick-return touchdowns. Here’s one, a 101-yarder during which no defender stood a chance of touching him for the final 60 yards.

Patterson is great at returning kicks for many reasons. Most obvious is his speed. Take this play, where the Raiders are foolish enough to overpursue Patterson when he struggles to pick up the ball. He simply bolts past them.

According to NFL player tracking data, Patterson has reached 20 mph on three kickoff returns in the past two years, including his Sunday touchdown. He hit 22.23 mph on a play against the Broncos in September, which at the time was the fastest speed any ballcarrier had reached since the league began releasing this data in 2018.

The filthiest part of his returns are the jukes. It shouldn’t be possible for someone to change directions when moving at the speeds that Patterson travels. On this 2018 return, he sidesteps so suddenly that a would-be tackler takes out a teammate like a bowling ball picking up a spare.

Patterson does get touched sometimes, and it’s surprisingly hard to bring him down. Momentum is mass times velocity, and Patterson is big and fast. He can look like a snow plow—with the defender often looking like snow.

What makes Patterson truly great isn’t any physical attribute, however. It’s his innate ability to find a seam in a stampede of NFL players galloping his way. Patterson can’t catch all that well, can’t beat press coverage, and can’t ditch cornerbacks with his less-than-impressive route-running. But in that moment when he catches a kickoff, looks upfield, and runs, he knows precisely where to go. It’s remarkable.

The kickoff is the most chaotic play in football, a melee of massive men making madness. Patterson looks at it and sees a direct line to heaven.

As studies have revealed more information about the connection between football and concussions, it’s become increasingly clear that kickoffs are unusually dangerous even by the sport’s troubling standards. It’s the only play in which 11 players on one team sprint downfield simultaneously, and the only one in which stationary blockers collide with players who have a running head start. The crashes are bigger and more violent on kickoffs than they are on most plays. NFL data revealed that an outsize proportion of concussions are caused by kickoffs. A devastating number of high school athletes die playing football every fall, and an alarming percentage of those deaths come as a result of kickoffs. For these reasons, I have argued the kickoff should be eliminated from the sport.

The NFL hasn’t gone that far, but it’s put forth a series of rule changes aimed at making the kickoff safer. Mainly, it’s tried to convince return men to not do their jobs, incentivizing them to take touchbacks instead of running with the ball. In 2011, the league moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35, making it easier for kickers to boot the ball into the end zone and easier for coverage teams to reach the return man faster. In 2016, the league moved the offense’s starting position after touchbacks from the 20-yard line to the 25, increasing the reward for accepting a touchback. The NFL has also introduced a series of changes that affect kickoff formations and blocking strategies.

These changes have worked. For years, the number of kickoff returns per game stayed relatively steady: 3.9 in 1980, 3.9 in 1985, 3.6 in 1990, 4.3 in 1995, 4.1 in 2000, 4.2 in 2005, and 4.0 in 2010. But with each additional rule change, the number of kickoff returns has plummeted. In 2011, after the kickoff was moved to the 35-yard line, the number of kickoff returns per NFL game dropped to 2.7. When the starting field position after touchbacks was moved to the 25-yard line in 2016, the number fell to 2.0. This year, the league is down to 1.5 kick returns per game, the lowest figure ever recorded.

More changes are sure to come. The Ivy League moved kickoffs to the 40-yard line and saw touchbacks on these plays rise to nearly 50 percent; a 2018 study said this reduced concussions on kickoffs by 68 percent. In college football, return men now have the option to accept touchbacks on kicks that don’t reach the end zone, a rule that the NFL could soon adopt. As much as I love watching Patterson run, I still believe that the kickoff should be abolished.

I also believe that what Patterson has accomplished in this era makes his historical standing all the more incredible. In the 2010 season, before the kickoff was moved to the 35-yard line, there were 23 NFL kick returns for a touchdown. Since 2016, there have been 23 combined. Patterson has played his whole career in a period when kickoff returns are passé, and yet finds himself one touchdown away from tying the record. I expect him to break the record for kickoff return touchdowns, just as I expect kickoffs to be fully eliminated from the game within a few decades, if not sooner. In 2050, when somebody asks who holds the record for kickoff return touchdowns, I predict that question will prompt one of two answers: “Cordarrelle Patterson” or “What the hell is a kickoff return?”

If Patterson had been born 20 years earlier and played in the NFL of 1999, he could’ve been a superhero, outperforming everybody on one of football’s most thrilling plays. If he had been born 20 years later and played in the NFL of 2039, he might have barely stuck in the league, a man whose unparalleled talent had no practical application. But Patterson was born when he was, leaving him an unusual legacy. He is the best kickoff returner in a sport trying to get rid of kickoff returns, and he’ll set records that could quickly be forgotten. Patterson is the last of his kind, and I would say the best of his kind as well. Long live the kickoff return king.