Rookie phenom Patrick Peterson doesn't lack for talent or confidence. Almost from the moment he stepped onto the practice field after being drafted fifth overall by the Cardinals, he has told teammates and coaches, "I'm the most dangerous man in America when I have the ball in my hands."
They chuckled. Later they rolled their eyes. O.K., kid. Enough already.
The speedy cornerback finally got everyone's attention when he returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown in a 28--21 victory over the Panthers in Week 1. But Peterson followed up that opening statement by going five straight games without a punt return of more than 29 yards. In two of those games his longest runback was just 12 yards.
No shame in that, of course, except to Peterson, who asked special teams coach Kevin Spencer if he could speak to the punt-return squad on the eve of the Cardinals' Oct. 30 game at Baltimore. Peterson's message was succinct: "Just give me five yards, and I'll make something special happen."
They did and he did, running back a second-quarter punt 82 yards for a score in a 30--27 loss to the Ravens. Peterson's Arizona teammates, and the rest of the NFL, now need no more convincing. Through Week 13 he leads the NFL with four punt-return scores, which ties the league's single-season record. Peterson, who does not play on the kickoff-return team, is also the first player to have four punt-return TDs of 80 yards or more in a season. On his longest, the 6'1" 219-pounder beat the Rams in overtime on Nov. 6 with a twisting, spinning 99-yard runback for the winning score in a 19--13 victory. He got loose in part because outside blocker Richard Marshall ignored instructions to release his outside cover man at the 20-yard line.
"I dropped my man at the 20 a couple of times, and [Peterson] ended up getting tackled," says Marshall, a cornerback. "I thought, Maybe if I stayed on my guy a little longer Patrick could have scored. Before the last return I told him I'm not going to let my man go. I stayed with him all the way to the five and pushed him into the end zone."
Like Marshall, Peterson, 21, had also ignored instructions. In his case it was an order to not field the ball inside his own 10-yard line. He apologized to Spencer several days later. The two had a long talk, and Spencer informed Peterson that average players need rules. Special players need guidelines. Peterson now has guidelines.
"You don't put shackles on a player like that," says Spencer. "He's a guy with speed, explosiveness, instincts and vision. And he's also extremely strong in his lower body and is able to run out of tackles."
Spencer is a 21-year league veteran and was the 2003 special teams coach of the year. He has worked with such standout return men as Tim Brown, Eric Metcalf and Antwaan Randle El, and he sees some of their best qualities in Peterson. There are Brown's soft hands, Metcalf's singular cutting and restart abilities, and Randle El's tenacity.
But Peterson is unique in that he regularly takes his eyes off the ball twice before fielding it. He spots it off the punter's foot, checks the coverage, tracks the ball and then checks to see where the outside cover men are before picking up the ball again at the last second. Doing this requires sure hands, a skill Peterson honed as a kid when his father, Patrick Sr., lobbed him water balloons until he could catch them without the balloons bursting.