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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When everyone else is wielding a scalpel, sometimes you’ve got to heave a bowling ball.
The NFL is a league of offensive specialists. Short-yardage specialists. Deep-threat specialists. Interior specialists. Outside specialists. First-down, second-down and third-down specialists. Each possesses a particular set of skills designed to advance the ball to the point that another specialist can take over.
And then there’s Atlanta’s Cordarrelle Patterson, who specializes in a little bit of everything.
Patterson’s enjoying that rarest of NFL moments – a breakout season in his ninth year in the league. One of the bright spots on an otherwise aggressively average Falcons team, he rushes, receives and returns kicks, working his way into highlights in all three categories. He’s doing everything this side of selling beer in the stands, and with three games left in the season, that’s not out of the question either. And he's just fine with being a late-career bloomer.
“Everything happened for a reason,” Patterson says smiling while standing on the edge of the Falcons’ practice field two days before Christmas. “I’m happy where I’m at. I’m thankful. Blessed for the opportunity I have. The sun is shining; it’s a nice day out.”
Patterson has had a whole lot of nice days this season. He’s the NFL version of an NBA unicorn – the size of a running back, the speed of a kick returner, the hands of a wide receiver and the downfield awareness of a coach in a skybox. With three games still remaining in the season, the four-time first-team All Pro has established career highs in rushing yards (565), rushing touchdowns (5), receiving yards (524) and receiving touchdowns (5). He averages six yards every time he puts his hands on the ball, and this season, he’s getting the rock a whole lot.
“He’s a football player first,” says Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone. “When you’re a football player first, you’re not defined by a position. You’ve got a feel … You’ve got a guy who’s now committed 100 percent to being in the running back room, but he might be put in a formation where he has to rely back on his experience as a wide receiver, which he was drafted into the league to play.”
Patterson wasn’t ever some off-the-grid diamond in a dumpster. A first-round pick of the Vikings back in 2013, the 29th pick overall, he quickly established himself as an All Pro-level kick returner. He holds the all-time record for kickoff return touchdowns with eight, a record he shares with two other players. In 2013, he opened a Sunday night game against Green Bay by returning the kickoff for the longest possible distance, 109 yards. In all, he has five kick returns for touchdowns longer than 100 yards.
“It takes a different type of person to run full speed while people are running full speed at you,” Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams says. “He has that ability. He can make people miss at any given time. He can take the ball 109 for a touchdown. And people change their game plans based on 84 being back there on kickoff returns.”
Still, Patterson couldn’t get out of the treacherous rut of the “good-but-not-good-enough” reputation – good enough to run out there for a few plays at every position, not good enough to win a full-time gig in any of them; good enough to sign for a short-term contract, not good enough to bring back.
But Patterson’s play in 2021 hasn’t just been a revelation for an otherwise struggling team, it’s been an indictment of past coaching that kept him in that rut, the assumption that a player’s skillset means his position is fixed in amber from the moment he arrives in the league.
New England — of course — first recognized Patterson’s skill set could be useful in more than just return situations. Patterson’s coaches began experimenting with placing him in different offensive schemes when he was with the Patriots in 2018. But it wasn’t until he joined the Bears in 2019 that then-Bears running backs coach Charles London and Ragone, then the Bears’ passing game coordinator, decided to expand Patterson’s resume. Patterson carried the ball a career-high 64 times in 2020.
When London and Ragone moved from Chicago to Atlanta to join the new Arthur Smith regime, they keyed in on acquiring Patterson, a free agent after two years with the Bears. They had a hunch Patterson could fit into Smith’s run-heavy offensive style.
“He’s a guy, through the years, a lot of guys have seen as, ‘man, this is a potential difference-maker,’” Ragone says.
Other players throughout NFL history have bounced back and forth between positions. Eric Metcalf returned kicks, caught passes and ran the ball for several teams, most notably the Browns, using otherworldly speed to outrun anyone who got close. Percy Harvin thrived in both receiving and kick return roles, and took occasional snaps at running back for both Minnesota and Seattle. Deion Sanders bounced back and forth between tormenting wide receivers and playing as one, but he doesn’t really count, since his preternatural athletic gifts allowed him to run freely without regard to schemes and playcalls.
But no one’s combined the rushing and receiving roles quite like Patterson this season. It’s a testament both to the vision of Atlanta’s new coaching staff and the 30-year-old Patterson’s willingness to try something entirely new at a time when most of his colleagues are starting to size up future broadcasting or coaching opportunities.
“Some people, they want to get stuck playing [one] position,” Williams says. “He’s going to do whatever it takes to help the team win, whether it’s help the offense be in a good position, help the punt team go down and control [field] position, help the kickoff return team to put Matt Ryan and our offense in good field position so we’re playing arena football – starting the ball at the 50-yard line.”
In theory, the skills necessary to thrive as a kick returner aren’t all that different from those necessary to succeed as a running back. But it’s not as simple as speed, vision and anticipation. In his eighth season, Patterson had to learn an entirely new set of skills, from blocking to line-reading. That’s a tall ask for any player, but Patterson indicated he was willing to do whatever was necessary to help the team.
“What you admire about him, what I appreciate about him, is his willingness, his want, and how he plays the game,” Ragone says. “So you turn the film on, or you’re in the stands, watching from the sidelines see a guy who goes out and every time he’s got a chance, he gives you everything he’s got.”
Switching from kick returner to running back isn’t as simple as just lining up behind the quarterback. The process of looking downfield and observing the flow of blockers is similar, of course, but beyond that, running backs have to fixate on different defenders and different coverage schemes. Plus, there’s the matter of protection; a kick returner doesn’t have to worry about anyone but himself, while a running back often needs to keep an eye out for his quarterback. In the precise world of the NFL, pure athleticism doesn’t get the job done; technique, repetition and experience do.
Patterson has earned that experience in a relatively low-risk situation. Even though they’re still somewhat in the playoff hunt thanks to the expanded postseason field, the Falcons are in the midst of an on-the-fly rebuild. Gone are most of the major offensive weapons from their 2017 Super Bowl team, like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, as well as the coaching staff that took them there. Calvin Ridley, the team’s top wide receiver, is off the field, focusing on his mental health. Kyle Pitts, the team’s top draft pick in 2021, still needed time to adjust to the pro game. That leaves ageless Matt Ryan with one consistent, reliable option throughout this 6-8 season: Patterson.
One problem with being a generalist is that you can’t compile truly impressive numbers in any one category. Patterson didn’t make the Pro Bowl this year despite his career resurgence and his inestimable value to the Falcons. Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones and Alvin Kamara won the three-way vote – coaches, players, fans – for the Pro Bowl, and you could rationalize it this way: Jones has more rushing yards, Cook has more rushing touchdowns, Kamara has more recognizable name value.
Patterson, who’s made the Pro Bowl four times in his career, shrugs off any concerns about validation via vote.
“Stuff happens. It is what it is,” he says. “I just do what I do on the football field each and every week. I can’t control where I get picked, stuff like that.”
Patterson’s success all over the field, combined with the increasing creativity of the college game, would seem to signal that there are more Cordarrelles ahead. But whether he’s one of one, or the first of a new breed of multi-position player, remains to be seen.
“There’s a mental part you have to be able to handle,” Ragone says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Yeah, I can do it,’ but the reality is, the game happens fast, and all of a sudden you can be put into a position that you don’t have a ton of experience in … There are a lot of great college players who come into the NFL, but the reality is, when they finally get into that position, most guys can’t handle doing more than one thing.”
“These kinds of players are few and far between,” one former NFL player personnel executive says. “Sometimes [coaches] can get too creative and shoot yourself in the foot. These luxury guys don’t come around every year.”
As always, Patterson’s future is a mystery. He’s on a one-year contract with Atlanta; next year he might return to the Falcons, or he might join his sixth team. For what their opinion’s worth, his Falcons coaches speak in the most glowing terms possible about Patterson.
“He’ll say, ‘Whatever you need, coach,’ whether it’s playing on defense, offense, special teams, whatever the case may be,” Williams says. “He’s a team player. Everybody in the locker room and the organization loves him.”
Patterson is keeping his focus on the next game, and the next game alone. “Whatever happens, happens. God got a plan for everyone,” he says. “I’d love to be in Atlanta, but I can’t control that. At the end of the day, Atlanta got to make their own decisions.”
Before then, though, he’s still got some remaining goals for this season.
“Throw a touchdown!” Patterson says, laughing. “Throw a touchdown and [catch] an interception. I’ve got a couple weeks to show my worth.”
Might as well knock off those last two items on the to-do list. He’s already done everything else on a football field.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.