When the NFL moved the kickoff up five yards, from the 30-yard-line to the 35, ahead of the 2011 season, it signaled a move away from one of the most exciting individual plays in football: the kickoff return touchdown. The change was made with player safety as a main stated factor, but also because it sped up games by causing more touchbacks. It’s probably a net positive—I think everyone had seen enough returns that ended somewhere around the 20-yard-line—but I am still nostalgic for the return touchdown.
Thankfully, Cordarrelle Patterson still exists, and he is now the statistical GOAT at this very specific and very exciting niche.
With that second quarter, 103-yard kickoff return, Patterson accomplished two things. The first was the more pressing: the Falcons were struggling against the apparently good Justin Fields and the Bears, so the touchdown, which cut it to 17-14 late in the first half, kept Atlanta in the game. (They took advantage of that chance, coming back to win 27-24.) The second and more historically resonant accomplishment is that Patterson now has nine career kickoff return touchdowns, best all-time.
With that score, Patterson broke the tie he had held since the 2020 season alongside former Browns return man Josh Cribbs and journeyman running back Leon Washington. What makes Patterson the rightful king of returns, though, is a question of timing. While Cribbs and Washington scored almost all of their touchdowns before the 2011 rule change (Washington returned one kick for a score in 2012, but otherwise, all of the duo’s TDs came pre-2011), Patterson has scored all nine of his after that rule change. This is a rarity: in the 11 full seasons since the rule change, the league averaged 7.63 kickoff return TDs per year, while the league averaged 15.64 in the 11 seasons before the change.
None of that mattered for Patterson, though. As a rookie with the Vikings in 2013, he returned two—including the record for longest return in history, 109 yards—and then scored two more in his third year. With his touchdown on Sunday, Patterson has also taken a return to the house for four teams: the Vikings, the Bears, the Patriots, and now the Falcons.
In a strange way, Patterson’s late-career resurgence as a running back has actually made it even harder for him to grab this record. He’s been great for Atlanta in the backfield over the last two seasons, but that has come at a cost to his total tally of returns: He only took back 18 kicks last year and has returned four in 2022. In every other season of his career but 2017, he notched at least 20 per season.
Whatever the rest of Patterson’s returning career may hold—he’s suffered a few injuries over the last two seasons, so perhaps he should not be back there full-time—he can now claim the mantle as the best kick returner of all time. (He is not, however, the best returner period, as he does not really return punts, and Devin Hester’s record of 20 return touchdowns seems safe for now.) It’s a small, not entirely meaningful piece of NFL history that Patterson claimed for himself today, but it should be his for a long, long time.