As Nate Burleson backpedaled in an effort to position himself beneath the punt, Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was having one of those Brett Favre moments. You know the one: it starts with What the heck is he doing? and turns into No. … No! … YES!
Like Holmgren would learn so many times while coaching Favre in Green Bay, sometimes you’ve got to trust a player’s instincts. As of late, Burleson has provided similar rewards, like he did with a 94-yard punt return against Cleveland on Sunday.
Although he doesn’t always go by the letter of the law as a return man, Burleson has emerged as a serious threat to score just about every time he touches the ball. And Holmgren has learned to take the good with the bad when it comes to making decisions.
“I love the fact he is capable of doing that,” Holmgren said, “but if you’re playing the odds, more often than not that once bites you a little bit.”
Burleson’s latest great return was the kind that drives Holmgren crazy. The Cleveland Browns were punting from their own 45-yard line during the second quarter of a game that Seattle was winning by eight points. Browns punter Dave Zastudil sent a high, arcing punt over Burleson’s head and toward the Seattle end zone. Rather than let the ball go, Burleson backed up and caught it inside the 10-yard line — a blatant violation of a return man’s unwritten rule.
Holmgren compared it to a baserunner going through a stop sign at third base.
A somewhat sheepish Burleson was without an excuse shortly after the game.
“I didn’t know where I was,” he offered. “Once I caught the ball, it was too late.”
An oncoming rush of defenders arrived a split second after the ball, yet Burleson somehow slipped through a crack and found some daylight. He took off running, avoiding Zastudil at the Cleveland 40-yard line, and ran all the way into the end zone for his second return touchdown in as many games.
“He’s been great,” quarterback Nate Burleson said. “Our special teams in general (have played well). Obviously it’s not just him, but he’s doing a great job for us. The return game in general has really helped the offense out and helped me out, so we’re really thankful for that.”
Only Chicago’s Devin Hester and the New York Jets’ Leon Washington, with three each, have more return touchdowns this season than Burleson’s two.
“We went through the same thing when we played the Bears with Hester,” Holmgren said, referring to Chicago’s Pro Bowl return man. “It changes your whole deal (if) you get a return guy that (teams are) afraid of and can take it the distance. … You have to think about that a lot.”
Burleson started returning kicks — begrudgingly — while at O’Dea High School in Seattle. All the prepster knew about the return game was that it could be pretty violent.
“I was scared I was going to get hit because that’s all I saw in the highlights,” Burleson recalled recently. “In ‘98, there weren’t too many elite punt returners in the NFL, so every time you saw a highlight of a punt returner, it was usually a guy getting blasted.”
Burleson eventually embraced the role, especially after learning some tricks of the trade from former NFL player Keenan Howry while with the Minnesota Vikings.
Now Burleson likes returning kicks, and it turns out he’s pretty good at the role.
And the Seahawks are glad to have him in it.
“It’s huge,” Holmgren said of Burleson’s effect on a game, “a very important thing if you are fortunate to have one of those great return guys.”