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Bob Ryan

Happy returns? Not always

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - The Horror! The Horror!

Every punt returner in the league felt for Kyle Williams. The young 49er started the NFC Championship game minding his own business and finished it as the perpetrator of a two-pronged returners’ faux pas.

1. Stay away from the bouncing ball.

2. Once you get the ball, hold onto the damn thing.

“It’s tough,’’ says Will Blackmon, who was on the other side of the field, wearing a Giants uniform, when Williams’s double nightmare occurred. “He’s a good player, and he was having an awesome game.’’

But no one will ever recall the good things Williams did in that contest. The world will only remember that he allowed one bouncing ball on a punt to graze his uniform, creating a live ball that was recovered by New York, and that he fumbled while returning another punt. Each led to scores, without which the Giants would not have won the game and advanced to Super Bowl XLVI.

“It shows you the influence of the punt return,’’ observes Blackmon.

Returning punts is not for everybody. Not all fast, shifty, and even courageous candidates are created alike. The job takes a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the people who excel at the art among the most admired in the sport.

People, for example, like . . .

Billy “White Shoes’’ Johnson.

“He was probably the best I’ve seen,’’ says Gil Brandt, the legendary Cowboys personnel director in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. It’s hard to quarrel with that nomination, Mr. White Shoes being the punt returner selected for the NFL 75th anniversary team.

But there have been a few others who have risen above the pack, among them Eric Metcalf, David Meggett, and Deion Sanders. In today’s era, we have the jaw-dropping Devin Hester, who has taken 12 punts to the House in his six years. Now we have another sensation in Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson, who brought four punts back for touchdowns.

“Patrick Peterson,’’ marvels Blackmon, the former Boston College star. “Somebody molded him from clay and put him into some kind of weird machine. He’s 220 and he runs a 4.2? C’mon.’’

“He’s very special,’’ acknowledges career punt returner Kevin Faulk. “But look where he went to school.’’

Yes, Kevin, he’s a fellow LSU Tiger.

So what does it take to do this job properly? Besides being fast, elusive, and explosive? Besides having excellent hands? Besides having the ability to make a very fast and difficult decision about whether or not to catch the ball or signal for a fair catch?

“You have to be nuts to do it,’’ insists Blackmon, who certainly sounds rational enough.

“I refused to return punts in high school,’’ Blackmon explains. “I saw enough guys getting killed, left and right, doing it.’’

Things changed when he got to BC.

“They said, ‘You’ve got to go back there,’ so I did,’’ he said.

Ten years later, he’ll be returning kickoffs and, yes, punts, in Super Bowl XLVI.

Start with the obvious: You’ve got to catch the ball. Sometimes that’s not so easy.

As Blackmon explains, the ball comes off the foot differently, depending on whether the punter is right-footed, or, like the Patriots’ Zoltan Mesko, left-footed.

As you might suspect, catching the ball in an enclosed structure such as Lucas Oil Stadium is a bit easier than catching it in, say, Chicago’s Soldier Field, which abuts Lake Michigan and has been known to produce sub-Arctic game conditions.

But regardless of conditions, there is always one constant. As the receiver awaits the ball, approximately 2 1/2 tons of angry manhood is surging toward him.

If you decide to catch the ball, you’d damn well better catch the ball. And if you decide not to catch the ball, get as far away from it as possible. This, of course, is what Williams did not do. Yes, it took extensive replay scrutiny to determine that the ball did graze his leg, knee or whatever, but he should never have put himself in harm’s way. All returners are taught this.

The fumble was another matter. He was being horribly careless with the ball. It was a generic ball-carrying error, not a punt-returning error, per se.

The big thinking for punt returners comes when the punt gets close to the goal line. A “10-yard line’’ rule is practically universal. Don’t catch anything inside the 10. But even that depends on where the punt is coming from. A booming punt that comes from the rival 30 is different than a line drive from the 45.

Most NFL return men come to the task with extensive experience. Faulk, for example, says he began returning punts not in high school, but in middle school. Blackmon had his BC experience. That’s why what Julian Edelman is doing has raised some eyebrows. He’s getting all his on-the-job training at football’s highest level.

Edelman watched the Williams debacle with great interest. “I definitely felt for him,’’ he says. “You just have to practice those situations and hope something like that never happens to you.’’

But please, Edelman says, don’t offer me up as an expert just yet.

“I took one on the 1-yard line this year. It’s early yet for me at this job. I don’t know if I should be offering any tips.’’

Here’s one thing Blackmon knows. When they start talking about the attributes needed to do the job, talking about the hands, the explosiveness that gets you by the first guy, and the potential to break one, they are all secondary to one thing.

“You see guys who have unbelievable talent who can do great things with the ball in their hands,’’ he points out. “But the coach will put somebody else back there who is better at ball security.’’

Would not common sense suggest that there will come a time when Edelman acquires the proper feel for the job and is able to just let things happen? That the time will come when he will automatically know when to fair catch, when not to fair catch, when to pick up the ball on a bounce, when not to? When, in fact, the job gets easy?

Uh-uh, says Faulk, who knows this job as well as any man alive. “It never gets easy,’’ he declares. “You have to focus and concentrate, each and every time.’’

In other words, a good punt returner must be crazy and lucid at the same time.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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