One of the reasons that Pete Carroll’s proclamation Tuesday that Earl Thomas — or maybe even Richard Sherman — might end up as the team’s punt returner this season became such a talking point is that it seems to fly against the conventional NFL wisdom to use such a valuable position player in such a potentially risky specialty role. The generally accepted idea of a punt returner is a player who pretty much specializes in that role (Leon Washington) or is a reserve.
I’d note at the start, of course, that Pete Carroll got where he is in part by defying large swaths of conventional football wisdom. Not sure he cares much what teams usually do, or what people on the outside think teams should do.
That said, I thought it would be interesting to review whether having a key player — or even just a starter — handle punt returns really flies as much in the face of conventional football wisdom as the immediate reaction Tuesday seemed to suggest.
And in reviewing the Seahawks’ own history, it definitely does.
In the 38 years that the Seahawks have existed, I identified only 12 seasons in which a player who was also a full-time starter at his position in that season was also Seattle’s main punt returner (and as reference, here’s a list of every player to ever return a punt or kickoff for the Seahawks).
Here’s the list of Seahawks who were the leading punt returner in a year in which they were also a primary starter at their position:
1982, Paul Johns, receiver
1984, Kenny Easley, safety
1992, Chris Warren, running back
1993, Kelvin Martin, receiver
1995, Joey Galloway, receiver
2007, Nate Burleson, receiver
2013, Golden Tate, receiver
One thing that stands out is that other than Easley, every player was an offensive starter.
A few also fit the traditional template of being young players who started out as returners and morphed into starting roles, notably Johns and Warren. Another, Galloway, was a first-round pick taken in part because of the impact he could make on special teams (and somewhat oddly, he didn’t have a single punt return in 1997, when Corey Harris handled those duties, but otherwise was the main punt returner in his other full-time seasons with the Seahawks.)
The other thing that stands out is the inclusion of Easley.
After the news broke yesterday that Thomas (above in an AP photo) might be called on to return punts, many longtime Seahawks fans referenced Easley — at the time also regarded as one of the best safeties in the game — being the team’s returner in 1984, a year when Seattle went 12-4 and Easley was the Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
One thing I’d forgotten is that Easley got the job sort of by default.
As explained in this 1984 Sports Illustrated story, Easley volunteered to take over punt return duties when Johns suffered a career-ending injury — which, yes, happened on a punt return (it’s worth noting, though, that Easley had already returned a few punts that season before taking over full-time when Johns was injured).
I’ve gotten e-mails and other correspondence from a few people saying Easley was injured returning punts.
UPDATE — And I see tonight that Seahawks beat writer/historian Clare Farnsworth writes that Easley hurt his ankle returning punts in the 1985 season.
As I noted earlier, Easley returned 16 punts for 194 yards in 1984 and then had eight more in 1985 when Paul Skansi had taken over as the primary punt returner. So yes, Easley was hurt returning punts, though not in the season in which he is best remembered for returning punts.
As I wrote earlier, it’s hard to say whether that serves as either a cautionary tale or an example of it working out just fine. Deion Sanders, to name one, returned lots of punts and kickoffs during a time when he was also maybe the best cornerback in the game. So it’s been done before.
As for Thomas and where things head from here, the Seahawks obviously had success last year with Tate handling those duties while also serving as the team’s leading receiver, a role that became even more important once it became apparent how long Percy Harvin would be out (not comparing Tate’s value to Thomas, though, just noting that he did have a pretty big role).
Carroll also has a history of using valued position players on special teams (Thomas and Sherman served on several last year, and one of the marquee players of his USC tenure was Reggie Bush, who made much of his mark with returns despite his value to the offense).
Of course, this could also just be Carroll in May, wanting to keep things a little lively and trying to keep everyone engaged a bit. We’ll see in September whether this is much adieu about nothing — or, well, something.