FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots' kickoff return unit was straight mediocre last season, and with special teams coordinator Scott O'Brien taking the mike Tuesday morning, it was a great opportunity to ask him about that.
Is someone like the dynamic Brandon Tate enough to really spark that area of the game, or do the 10 guys in front of him hold an equal amount of responsibility?
"All the returners in this league, they're all good, [but] they're only as good as those 10 other guys," said O'Brien, who is in his 20th NFL season and his second in New England. "Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure there are. The explosive guy, the playmakers, that’s what you're looking for. You're looking for that guy that not only has the physical skills, the high control, the instincts of setting up blocks, that type of thing, the speed to make explosive plays. But it's the other guys that are giving him that opportunity to get started, so there's a combination.
"And young returners really grow. Don’t get me wrong. There are some really instinctive — through the history of the National Football League — rookies [that] just boom. They have hardly been taught anything yet, and then they really grow, understanding the principles of coverage here and how to set up returns, relative to where they catch the ball, and then they start making everybody else's job a little bit easier as they start to learn that overall concept that we have. And then when you have a combination, you become more explosive."
So, predictably, it's a combination of both, but an elite returner can definitely put a team over the top. Guys like Josh Cribbs, Johnny Knox and Percy Harvin have added new dimensions to their respective teams, and with Tate's pedigree, he might have the ability to do the same in New England.
O'Brien noted there's been a good crop of young returners who have recently emerged from the college ranks, and there has been more attention paid to the position because college teams are using their best athletes as returners. Tate fell under that category, too.
"I think the trend in college is to get those explosive players that make those plays, so we're seeing more of them now in college, as opposed to 'Hey, I can't get him hurt,' that type of thing," O'Brien said. "I think that's changed a little bit, too, philosophy-wise. Every year, there's a pretty good group of what you're looking for as explosive returners."