How Patriots Legend Helped Unlock Marcus Jones’ Punt Returning

Jones' 84-yard game-winner rescued the Patriots on Sunday

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November 21

FOXBORO, Mass. — On Sept. 18, Marcus Jones was a healthy scratch for the Patriots. Two months and two days later, he was the hero in New England’s most dramatic victory in years.

How did he get here from there? Two words: Troy Brown.

After Jones’ 84-yard punt-return touchdown in the closing seconds vaulted the Patriots to a 10-3 win over the New York Jets on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, head coach Bill Belichick credited Brown for helping turn the rookie cornerback into one of the NFL’s most explosive return men.

Brown, a Patriots Hall of Famer and one of the greatest punt returners in franchise history, has coached the position in New England for the past three seasons on top of his duties as the team’s receivers coach.

“I think Troy Brown has done a great job with him,” Belichick said. “Where Marcus was when he got here and where he is now, they’re an ocean apart. Troy has really done a good job with the ball-handling, ball catching, making the first guy miss, ball security, setting up blocks, having vision on the ball, the gunner, playing the wind, so forth.”

Jones came to the Patriots with a decorated return-game résumé. In college at Houston and Troy, he tied the NCAA record with nine career punt/kick return touchdowns, including a 100-yard, last-minute game-winner against SMU last October. He was the best returner in the nation, bar none, and when New England drafted him in the third round, he was viewed as the obvious favorite to replace departed return man Gunner Olszewski.

But he didn’t. At least, not right away.

Jones was limited in spring practice after underdoing offseason surgery on both shoulders, and he did not show the Patriots enough during training camp and the preseason to win either the punt or kick return job. The former went to Myles Bryant, who hadn’t returned punts since high school. Ty Montgomery handled the latter to start.

Bryant also beat out Jones for the top slot cornerback spot, meaning the Patriots had little reason to play their diminutive rookie DB early in the season. He logged just four snaps in New England’s season opener, then was a healthy inactive for the team’s Week 2 win at Pittsburgh.

Jones didn’t become the Patriots’ primary kick returner until their third game, and he didn’t take over punt-return duties until Week 4, after an eventful opening stretch that featured multiple muffs by Bryant that New England was fortunate to recover.

“Marcus, we didn’t feel like he was quite ready at the beginning of the year,” Belichick explained. “We went with Myles. Then, as Marcus got better and gained more experience and confidence and then performed well, he’s handled all the return game for a number of weeks now. Certainly, there’s some innate skill that goes with that. There’s (also) certainly a developmental aspect.”

The wait was worth it. Jones now ranks second among all qualified returners in both punt-return average (16.6 yards) and kick-return average (24.3), per NFL GSIS, and he’s the only player in the NFL this season to return a punt for a touchdown. Over the last three games, he’s had punt returns of 23, 32 and 84 yards and a kickoff return that went for 32 yards.

“He came in pretty good to begin with,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said after Sunday’s game. “But I just think his confidence level has really increased. His god-given ability has been evident from Day 1, and I think now our group realizes, hey, if we block for this guy, he’s going to have a chance to make plays. So we go out there, he has a lot of confidence in us, we have a lot of confidence in him, and I think it makes for a good unit. And when we needed it most, we just trusted each other.”

Added rookie special teamer Brenden Schooler: “He’s awesome at setting up blocks. He makes it easy for us. Having a returner (like him) back there, it’s electrifying. At any moment, it can happen, and (Sunday) it happened at the perfect moment. It was an awesome feeling.”

In Belichick’s eyes, Jones’ rapid rise from inactive to irreplacable is a testament to Brown’s coaching. The three-time Super Bowl champion has overseen top-tier punt returners in each of his three seasons on staff, with Olszewski earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2020 and ranking second in yards per return in 2021.

“Troy has done a tremendous job with Marcus,” Belichick said. “Marcus has worked hard, and he’s really improved. He’s had a number of big returns for us, but obviously (this one) going to the house, might have been the first one in the league this year. Obviously a huge play in the game, and great execution by the punt return team to get Marcus started. … If you can get them blocked, get it started, then you at least have a chance.”

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Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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