FOXBOROUGH — Chances are good that the Patriots will begin their season Sunday by kicking off to the Tennessee Titans, but it’s a mathematical certainty that, sooner or later, the Titans will kick the ball off and the Patriots will receive.
When that routine change-of-possession play occurs, there is one question that comes to mind for many Patriots fans: Who will line up deep to receive the kick?
The answer, based on preseason observations and an innocent question or two, remains murky. The same can be said of the Patriots’ return game in general. Will it continue to languish statistically near the bottom of the league, or is there someone capable of catching a kickoff and — wait for it — actually snapping off a long return?
“It doesn’t matter if you have Usain Bolt back there — if you’re not blocking for him, he’s not going to get anywhere,” said Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater. “We know we need to improve in that area. It’s no mystery.”
During the 2011 season — the first in which the spot the kicking team boots from was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 — the Patriots ranked 29th in the NFL in yards per kickoff return, at 21.4. Only Kansas City (21.3), Philadelphia (20.9), and Indianapolis (18.6) were worse.
Because of the 5-yard difference, touchbacks increased across the league and the number of returns went down. The Patriots had just 46 returns last season, far fewer than 2010 (56), 2009 (54), and 2008 (62).
But even when the Patriots chose to attempt a return, the results were not good. Of course, the team went 13-3 in the regular season, then advanced to the Super Bowl, so any big-picture look at the return game should have context. But still.
“We didn’t return them very well in any conditions at any time,” coach Bill Belichick said during training camp. “That’s obviously an area that we can improve in, that we have worked hard in, but based on the results, still need a lot more work on.”
They certainly didn’t lack for candidates during the preseason schedule. Seven players had at least one kickoff return, combining for 11 returns. The average of the 11 was just 20.5 yards, a slight drop from last season’s paltry number.
The seven had varying degrees of success. Devin McCourty had a 30-yard return, the best of the 11; Brandon Bolden brought one back 29 yards against the Giants; and Kyle Arrington had a 26-yarder against Tampa Bay.
What’s lacking, it seems, is that big-play returner, one capable of taking a kickoff back for a touchdown. The last Patriot to do it was Brandon Tate, who scored on two kickoff returns in 2010. That’s the same season the Patriots also had a 71-yard kickoff return, but that was from Dan Connolly, a 310-pound offensive lineman.
Last season’s primary returners, Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman, each had a season best of 37 yards. Woodhead averaged 21.9 yards on 20 returns; Edelman brought back 12 for a 23.7-yard average.
“The play needs to be executed well, so do your job — that’s the only thing I’m focused on when I’m out there,” Woodhead said. “In all plays, everyone has to go out there and do their job. If the guys up front do their job and the returner doesn’t, you know, then, it’ll probably be a bad return.”
The presumed returner of the future is unavailable in the present. Jeff Demps is a rookie from Florida who was signed to a three-year contract last month, not long after helping the US 4 x 100 relay team win a silver medal in the London Olympics. But Demps’s rookie season was over not long after it began. He suffered a leg injury against the Giants in the exhibition finale and was placed on injured reserve, making him ineligible to play this year.
With the Gators, Demps returned 21 kickoffs for a 28.8-yard average, scoring once on a 99-yarder.
Of course, having a speedster returning kicks won’t amount to much if he doesn’t get the necessary support in front of him.
“It’s just all 11 guys doing their job better,” said Slater. “It’s not necessarily the returners back there, it’s everybody as a unit. Attention to detail this year is going to be huge for us, taking advantage of our practice time.”
Which brings us back to our original question. The first time the Titans are set to kick off, which Patriots will be back to receive it?
Demps had the most preseason returns, but he’s unavailable. McCourty had the longest return in the preseason, followed closely by Bolden, who returned a few at Mississippi.
“The more you work at it, the more comfortable you get with it,” said Bolden, a rookie. “I keep getting a couple days out at practice trying to get a few balls here and there, and I’m pretty sure if my number’s called I’ll be ready for it.”
What about Edelman — who set a franchise record last season by averaging 15.3 yards per punt return — or Woodhead? Shouldn’t they be considered the odds-on favorites, because of their experience?
“That’s something you’ve got to ask Coach,” Woodhead said. “You’re not going to get me to say anything.”
We’ll find out Sunday.