by Christopher Price
At the start of the second half on Sunday when Ellis Hobbs started out of the end zone eight yards deep, almost every Patriots fan from Bridgeport to Block Island — as well as most of the New England sideline and coaches box — had the same thought: Good Lord, what is he doing? Anyone who has ever played football knows that you never think about doing something like that.
“It was one of those things where it was like, ‘No, no, no,’” said wide receiver Wes Welker of his reaction when Hobbs started out of the end zone.
But Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick knows that when it comes to returning kicks and punts, things aren’t always what they seem to be. You can’t get caught up in the traditional hard and fast rules of special teams — like automatically taking a knee if the kick is received in the end zone, or not calling for a fair-catch inside the 20.
“Every kick is different,” cautioned Belichick yesterday when recalling Hobbs’ return.
That’s why, when the Iowa State product started his 108-yard trek into history, Belichick was maybe the one New England follower who didn’t wonder what was going on. Much is made of his background as a defensive mastermind, but that discussion often shortchanges Belichick’s history on special teams. Few head coaches have the special teams background that Belichick does. Among his other duties, he was a special teams coach from 1976 to 1982 with the Lions, Broncos and Giants. Seven years — longer than anyone else who is currently an NFL head coach, other than Cleveland’s Romeo Crennel. And more than most head coaches, he knows the importance of special teams — some would argue that his special teams unit was almost solely responsible for winning the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Steelers.
And while many teams have hard and fast rules on special teams play, Belichick said yesterday he’s frowned on such an approach. That not only goes for the personnel asked to work on special teams — the Patriots remain one of the few teams in the league who use a healthy number of starters for most special teams formations — but for on-field decisions on punts and kick returns. You can give a returner some general guidelines and a solid phalanx of blockers, but in the end, there are too many variables to use a dogmatic approach to the kicking game.
“I think if you’ve been around the kicking game in this league long enough, you know it’s hard to have a hard and fast rule and be right every time,” Belichick said yesterday. “You could have a rule, but I don’t think you’re going to be right every time.”
According to Belichick, there are simply too many possibilities.
“Hang time is involved, which I’d say is a big factor. You tell me whether you’d rather handle a ball that is three yards deep in the end zone with a 3.7 hang time or handle a ball that comes down on the goal line with 4.2 hang time. It’s not the same,” Belichick said yesterday.
“You can say don’t catch the ball inside the 10-yard line, but if there’s a five-second hang time and you have four guys standing behind you on the goal line and the ball comes down on the six, I don’t know how smart it is to let it hit and bounce down to the two,” he added, referencing Kevin Faulk’s decision to take a fair-catch on a first quarter punt at New England’s nine-yard line.
So when Hobbs came churning down the sidelines into history, Welker — as well as everyone else who had a flying Elvis on the side of their helmet or front of their shirt — quickly changed their tune from “no, no, no” to “yes, yes, yes.” And New England had its latest special teams hero.
“I think Ellis made the decision that he thought was the best one at that time,” Belichick said. “ It worked out OK, so that’s good. I think he was trying to make a play. What I always encourage the players to do is try to make a good play and it turned out good.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. How the New England offensive line handles the San Diego linebackers. The Charger LBs can bring the pressure like few other teams in the league — last year, only one other team had a higher percentage of sacks come from their linebackers than San Diego. On the heels of their effort against the Jets (when they held New York sackless), it’ll be another stern test for Patriots’ offensive linemen Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur and Ryan O’Callaghan.
2. The Randy Moss/Quentin Jammer matchup. Jammer isn’t the shy retiring type — on his Web site last year, he wondered how many picks he would get against Moss — even though a Los Angeles Times story recently named him the league’s worst corner in coverage (by their count, he was targeted 126 times last season and gave up 72 receptions, a league high). Moss is coming off one of the best performances for a wide receiver (nine catches, 183 yards, one TD) in the history of the New England franchise. It’s likely the two will spend the bulk of Sunday evening going head-to-head.
3. The continued maturation of Laurence Maroney. For the first time in his professional career, Maroney had a game where he got 20 or more carries. As he starts to develop into a full-time featured back, games like this week’s contest with the Chargers (who were a Top 10 team against the run last season) will go a long way toward defining his career as a No. 1 running back in the NFL.
4. Special teams showdown. Can Ellis Hobbs turn in another solid return performance? Can Matt Cassel regain his role as holder after botching a 43-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski? And will Chris Hanson get a chance to punt in a pressure situation?
5. Playoff hangover. Even though most of the bad blood stemming from the post-playoff histrionics was supposedly settled at the Pro Bowl and during the offseason, there’s still enough history between these two teams to make one think that it’s not completely in the past. If things get out of hand for either side, this game certainly has the potential to get ugly fast.
STAT OF THE WEEK
10. The Patriots had the ball for 12:30 in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win, an astounding 10 more minutes than the Jets.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I always try to find that sixth or seventh gear, the gear they don’t even make.” – Kick returner Ellis Hobbs on one of his goals as a return man.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.