Ever wonder why many of the NFL’s top kick returners never return punts? If so, you’ll be interested in what New England Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge had to say Tuesday.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Judge laid out, in great detail, why returning a punt is both very different from and exponentially more difficult than fielding a kickoff.

“A lot of people assume that if you can catch a kickoff, you can catch a punt,” Judge explained. “They’re two very, very different plays and two very, very different balls to field. Kickoffs have much more of a linear path to them. They’re a much easier flight to judge and get set up on, as well as normally kickoffs have an easier determined depth that you have to work to.

“Punts, the best equivalent you could have is playing center field in baseball. You’re truly judging the flight of the ball, and you’re not only worried about the distance of the ball, but you’re also worried about the curve and the break of the ball based on nose up or nose down. You’re worried about the crosswind and how that could play a factor, and you’re worried about the bodies around you — that you may be coming up into a crowd or setting up laterally and making sure you’re clear on it.

“Judging a punt is a very difficult thing to do, much more difficult than most people would think. And while a lot of times people have the conception of ‘just go back there and catch it,’ there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot more variables in catching a punt, and it’s definitely something that takes a lot of courage to do — to sit on back there with your eyes in the air, trusting your blockers in front of you and having the awareness around you to go ahead and make the play.”

Judge doesn’t believe the ability to successfully field punts comes naturally to players. It’s a skill, he said, that typically takes years to master.

“I don’t think it’s absolutely natural,” Judge said. “I think you have to develop a feel and learn it over time. I think it’s something that some players have better instincts for than others. … One of the questions as a special teams coach I ask every (new player) is, ‘Did you grow up playing baseball?’ because normally guys who grew up playing baseball are used to judging a ball in the air and getting their body under it.

“A lot of guys have difficulty judging it in the air, knowing when to come forward, when to go back, anticipating, with the nose of the ball up or down and dealing with the wind, how much it’s going to break in either direction. I don’t think anything about it is a natural skill. I think some guys have better natural instincts, maybe, but I think it’s something you definitely have to work over time and develop a feel (for).”

It’s currently unclear who will return punts for the Patriots in this Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Danny Amendola left town in free agency this spring, Julian Edelman is serving a four-game suspension and Riley McCarron was waived Monday after muffing a punt in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans.

Safety Patrick Chung, wide receiver Chris Hogan, running back Rex Burkhead and wideout/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson all practiced punt returning during the summer, but that group has returned a grand total of four career punts at the NFL level (three for Chung, one for Patterson, none for Hogan or Burkhead).

Despite this uncertainty, Judge doesn’t sound worried. He noted Chung filled in in Week 2 last season while Edelman and Amendola both were injured and said the coaching staff always has contingency plans in place.

“I know there’s a lot of questions right now in terms of what’s the next step going to be, but I’ll just say that this isn’t very unfamiliar territory for us,” Judge said. “Going into the second game last year, if you remember, we didn’t have Julian, and Danny wasn’t at the game in New Orleans last year. We ended up going with Patrick. He was one of several guys who were part of that option, and due to roles within the game, he ended up handling it for that game.

“So we’ve had different times we’ve had to put different guys back there for different situations, whether that’s as a punt returner or on a safety kickoff return where you’re using multiple punt returners on the unit. So it’s never just training one guy for a fourth down. You’re always looking at the situational plays that may come up throughout the game and how you can best use everyone on your roster.”

Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images