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MANY HAPPY RETURNS

Dec. 12, 2011
Dec. 12, 2011

Table of Contents
Dec. 12, 2011

LEADING OFF
GOLF PLUS
  • How big was Tiger's victory at the Chevron? Can Luke Donald hang on to No. 1? Who's most likely to become the top American? How do the major venues rate, and who will win the four championships?

  • Great majors, a new No. 1, LPGA dominance, an old school fight for the money title and the rediscovery of a vintage track too tough to die made 2011 a terrific year in golf

  • The game will long remember Europe's leading light, a pioneering woman and a television innovator

Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR / SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR
SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR, 1981
SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR, 1976
  • A couple of recent divorces have dusted up the Girl Next Door, but as always she will never sit back and accept defeat

SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR, 1982
  • A man can gather plenty of insight on the road from boy wonder to senior statesman for the sport he loves

PRO FOOTBALL
  • The Patriots' defense, built from spare parts, castoffs and converted receivers, ranks dead last in the NFL, and yet New England is once again cruising to the playoffs. The real test is yet to come

SPECIAL REPORT
COLLEGE FOOTBALL
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
BASEBALL
  • In 136 major league seasons, there's never been a more dizzyingly dramatic day than Sept. 28, 2011. The Red Sox and the Braves may disagree, but for everyone else it's a date that will live in ecstasy

PRO HOCKEY
  • With the club slumping and captain Alex Ovechkin seemingly checked out, the Capitals dumped their coach. Now one of the NHL's superstars isn't just struggling to rediscover his game, but he's also trying to shed an ugly label

  • The NHL's coaching carousel began to go 'round in earnest last week, with three jobs turning over in a four-day stretch. Besides the departure of Bruce Boudreau and the arrival of Dale Hunter in Washington, D.C., here's the lowdown on what went wrong and what to expect from here on in

COLLEGE BASKETBALL
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Departments

MANY HAPPY RETURNS

Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson has been bringing back punts for touchdowns at a torrid pace—and making it look easy. If only someone would just kick the ball to him again

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."

This is an article from the Dec. 12, 2011 issue

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.

The only ones getting wet these days are the teams that choose to challenge him. On the eve of Sunday's game against the visiting Cowboys, Peterson had dinner with Dallas safety Danny McCray, a former LSU teammate. "We are not kicking the ball to you," McCray promised him.

The Cowboys didn't, though that couldn't keep them from losing 19--13 to Arizona (5--7) in overtime. Thanks to the directional punting of Matt McBriar and solid field position that allowed the Dallas punter to place four of his five kicks inside the 20, Peterson was limited to one yard on one return.

"I've just got to be patient," says Peterson. "Somebody is going to try me, and when they do, I've just got to make a play."

Peterson believes that chance will come on Sunday against the visiting 49ers (10--2), who have clinched the NFC West. He lost a fumble and gained only 22 yards on two returns in a 23--7 loss at San Francisco on Nov. 20. "I can guarantee you, they will kick it to me," he says. "They don't like us, and they felt they had pretty good coverage in that game. I'll get a chance, and I'll make the most of it, I promise you that."

FOLLOW @SI_Jim Trotter

KICK IT UP A NOTCH

Of players with at least four punt-return TDs, the top five in frequency are all active, with Peterson setting the pace.

PACMAN JONES

one TD every

23 returns

REGGIE BUSH

one TD every

24 returns

PATRICK PETERSON

one TD every

8 returns

DESEAN JACKSON

one TD every

28 returns

DEVIN HESTER

one TD every

17 returns

PHOTOJOE NICHOLSON/US PRESSWIRE (JONES); KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT/US PRESSWIRE (BUSH); DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (PETERSON); DAVID BERGMAN (JACKSON); DENNIS WIERZBICKI/US PRESSWIRE (HESTER)