Cordarrelle Patterson stands waiting in the back of the end zone, the heels of his feet hugging the white paint behind him. It’s Week 8 of the 2013 season, and the rookie is already the league’s most dangerous kick returner, averaging 36.5 yards-per-return to start his career.
Opposing teams have quickly learned to kick the ball away from Patterson, but the Packers’ Tim Masthay boots the ball deep, a mistake that will forever live in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Leaning back, Patterson fields the kick and idles over the goal line, reading his blocking and charting a path through the scrum ahead.
He quickly finds a crease and explodes, following Toby Gerhart up the alley with one hard cut. The burst that made Patterson so exciting his rookie year allows him to run upfield untouched, save for a diving attempt from Packers corner Micah Hyde. With one more plant step and juke, Patterson makes three Packers miss before hitting his fourth gear en route to the end zone.
The play above stands as the longest kick return in NFL history, a 109-yard example of exceptional athleticism and near-perfect blocking. It highlights everything that made Patterson such a threat in the return game his rookie year — speed, vision, a commitment to play design, and aggressiveness.
So what happened? Since making the Packers coverage team look silly, Patterson hasn’t sniffed the end zone on special teams. His yards-per-return have dipped dramatically — from 32.40 in 2013 to 25.62 in 2014 — and he appears more timid, even conservative, with the ball in his hands. Sure, Patterson is responsible for some of regression, but Mike Priefer’s unit must also improve if the Vikings are to return to form in 2015.