In terms of watching breathtaking punt and kickoff returns, man, I feel like I was spoiled growing up a Cardinals’ fan.
In the 60’s to early 70’s, a daredevil named Chuck Latourette burst onto the scene. This guy had the nerves of a high wire acrobat. In 1968, he was the NFL kickoff return leader in yards. That same year versus the Saints, he set the NFL record for punt return average in a single game. If there ever was a north-south return man, Latourette was the one. For his career, Latourette averaged 25.3 yards per kickoff return.
In the 70’s, once Chuck Latourette decided to retire and go to med school, in came Terry Metcalf---and boy oh boy could this kid scoot. Every time he touched the ball, it was a potential home run. In fact, during the 1975 season, Terry Metcalf set the 14 game record for combined yards gained with 2,462. He was a 3 time Pro Bowler (1974, 1975, 1977) and was a 2nd Team All Pro in 1975, per AP, NEA and PFW. Metcalf finished his career averaging 11.5 per punt return and 26.2 yards per kickoff return. He took 3 returns to the house.
When the early 80’s rolled along, we Cardinals’ fans were wooshed away by the human Jetstream, Roy Green. Roy Green ran like he was lighter than air. He was one of the rare players back in the day who played both ways. The Cardinals wanted to do all they could to get his rare speed on the field. As a rookie he took a kickoff 106 yards to the house, which then tied the NFL record for the longest kickoff return TD. While he played a good deal of CB early on, when they put him in at WR he gained a whopping 738 yards on 33 catches (21.6 ave.). In 1984 he led the NFL in receiving yards and for the second straight year, he was named First Team All Pro (AP).
In the late 80’s, early 90’s, right behind the Jetstream came BYU’s Vai Sikahema, the first Tongan to ever play in the NFL. Vai Sikahema must have thought the NFL stood for the No Fear League. He was the quintessential special teams player. In fact, he was the NFC’s return man and ST’s ace in the 1986 and 1987 Pro Bowls. For his career, Sikahema averaged 11.2 yard per punt return (3 TDs) and 21.3 yards per kickoff return.
It feels like it has been quite a while since we Cardinals’ fans have enjoyed the thrill of an exhilarating return game. We had it in spades Patrick Peterson’s rookie year where he took 4 returns to the house in electrifying fashion. And then David Johnson made his first splash as a rookie when he took the opening kickoff to the house at Soldier Field and ran for 598 yards on 22 returns for an outstanding 27.2 average.
The darkest days in the “diminishing returns” game the past few years came in both playoff losses to Carolina. In the 2014 playoffs at Carolina, with the Cardinals behind 17-14 early in the second half, Ted Ginn Jr. inexplicably tried to run back a kickoff from 9 yards deep in the end zone only to literally cough the ball up on the Panthers’ 10 yard line.
Save for one superb punt return TD against the Giants at Giants’ Stadium, Ginn was tentative at best. His fumble helped turn a close game into a rout. It still burns that after the Cardinals cut him a month later, he re-signed with the Panthers where he suddenly was a return threat again---and, even worse, where he admitted that he had only signed with Arizona for the money.
Then in 2015, just when the Cardinals had scored a TD to cut the Panthers’ lead t 17-7, the Cardinals’ defense stopped the Panthers’ offense and pinned them deep in their own end, With momentum finally on the Cardinals’ side, Patrick Peterson came sprinting up to try to catch a short line-drive punt and badly muffed the catch. The Panthers pounced on the ball. Just as the Panthers did in 2014, they took the turnover and marched in for a score that then turned the game into a blowout.
The Cardinals’ return game got so poor the past few years that punts were being fair caught with no player within 5 to 10 yards and some return men like Andre Ellington would run half speed and then actually take a dive. The Cardinals had to have led the NFL the past couple of years in convenient slips to the turf on punt and kickoff returns. Lots of bad acting.
Last year the hope was that hard-running, speedy T.J. Logan was going to be the answer on kickoff returns. That hope was dashed when he broke his wrist in the pre-season. But, Logan is now healthy and raring to go as this year’s camp begins. Plus, this year the Cardinals drafted Christian Kirk, college football’s most dynamic punt returner in 2017.
With a new head coach in Steve Wilks who believes that special teams are special and should be treated that way, and a new special teams’ coordinator in Jeff Rodgers who helped turn rookie Tarik Cohen into one of the league’s top kickoff and punt returners last year---maybe---just maybe---the new coaches will help bring the romance of the return game back to the Cardinals where once redbirds #26, #21, #81 and #36 dared and dazzled.