BRONCOS

Dwayne Stukes responds to D-Mac’s ‘idiotic’ suggestion of Pat Surtain on punt returns

Nov 17, 2022, 2:18 PM | Updated: 4:18 pm
Dwayne Stukes...
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)
(Photo by Andrew Mason / DenverFan.com)

We live in a weird place right now.

Yes, Colorado can be weird. So can the United States, and Earth itself. But in the football world at this moment, we reside in a spot in which a team can hire an interim head coach whose only coaching experience is an 1100-student parochial high school, then watch his team win his first game on the sideline.

What’s more, that inexperienced coach’s moves — installing a young offensive assistant as play caller, re-installing the 15-year veteran quarterback ahead of the callow second-year late-round pick, feeding the team’s dominant running back — were a reason why they won.

Yes, Jeff Saturday’s Indianapolis Colts had the benefit of facing a Las Vegas Raiders squad that — so far, at least — is a bigger loser than Clark Griswold playing “pick a number” at an off-strip casino. But a win is a win, and after a week of getting shredded by football cognoscenti, Saturday — at least for his first time out — and Colts owner Jim Irsay laughed last.

If that can happen, is there any notion too absurd?

Which is why on Wednesday afternoon, in the 104.3 The Fan studio, I told Darren McKee — D-Mac, to the uninitiated — that this is his moment. When a bonkers notion like pulling a head coach out of the broadcast booth proves successful — in the short term — almost nothing is too nuts.

So, on some level, what happened Thursday in the media room at UCHealth Training Center was my fault.

***
“ARE YOU READY FOR A RADICAL SUGGESTION?”

That’s how D-Mac began first floating the notion of using Pat Surtain II as the punt returner.

Let’s just say that some of D-Mac’s ideas are — how do I put this gently — not rooted in reality. I sometimes say they’re “chasing rainbows.” No, it’s not realistic that Greg Penner and S. Robson Walton simply buy Omaha Productions and simply put Peyton Manning in charge of everything Broncos-related, as he suggests.

But it makes for great discussion — and some dumbfounded reactions, to be sure.

Yes, it has been done before. In fact, nineteen years ago on Wednesday, Mike Shanahan pressed Rod Smith into service to return punts against the then-San Diego Chargers. Smith was not in his imperial phase at that point — he would finish that year with below 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in seven seasons. But he remained the Broncos’ clear WR1.

It wasn’t a duty Smith welcomed. He didn’t do it again that season. But he returned 23 punts over the following three campaigns, averaging 9.8 yards a runback.

And over the years, the Broncos occasionally used starters on punt returns. CB Darrent Williams and WR Eddie Royal were each primary punt returners — and pretty good ones, too. And others like WRs Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders and dime safety Jim Leonhard were among those with cameos — although with Leonhard and Welker, their use was more of a ball-security issue in relief of the fumble-prone Trenton Holliday.

Which led us to Thursday, when special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes met the media.

D-Mac had the last question.

“Coach, is it crazy just to use a vet back there to take punts back — even a core offensive player or defensive player to ensure the right thing gets done more often?”

This was the opening.

“Do you have a suggestion on who we should use, just so I know?” Stukes responded.

“Sure!” a chipper D-Mac replied. “Patrick Surtain.”

“Patrick Surtain,” Stukes repeated. “So, if he goes back there and gets hurt, who do you think would be in trouble — myself, or you?”

And while D-Mac offered to take the heat, he also noted that star cornerbacks like Deion Sanders returned punts.

Now, a note on Surtain: he NEVER returned punts at Alabama. His last work in this realm was in high school. Sanders wasn’t just a punt returner at Florida State, he led the nation in punt returns in 1988, his final season before the Atlanta Falcons made him a top-5 pick the following spring. Punt returning was part of Sanders’ equation when the Falcons selected him. It was not — and is not — for Surtain.

“Deion Sanders did it his whole career, correct? Patrick hasn’t done it in his whole career,” Stukes said. “… And to put him in harm’s way — that would be idiotic by me.”

***
A POTENTIAL SOLUTION?

Stukes did offer up the always-reliable Kendall Hinton as a potential option. Hinton isn’t a starter, unlike Surtain. But he does possess experience and has worked on it in practice.

“Now, if you said we could put Kendall Hinton back there, or someone of that sort, absolutely,” Stukes said. “But is Kendall as explosive as Montrell?

“There’s no disrespect to Kendall. Kendall is a very good athlete. He can catch the ball. He has good returner mechanics, etc. We want an explosive guy back there. We feel like Montrell gives us the best chance for explosive returns. That’s why he’s back there.”

Washington is going through “growing pains,” Stukes noted. But at the same time, those issues also ensured that the Broncos started their first series at their 4-yard line after Washington positioned himself at the Denver 18 and let Ryan Stonehouse’s punt hit at the 13, after which the Titans downed it.

And the explosiveness has not manifested itself recently. Washington averaged 15.2 yards on punt returns in Weeks 1-4. Since then, he’s averaged 3.7, and his season-long average sits at 8.6 yards. He ranks 10th among 21 eligible punt returners. But he also had a pair of fumbles against the Chargers and one on a kickoff against the Colts.

Is Surtain an absurd potential solution? Yes, because you’d be starting from near-zero with a player who hasn’t handled that work even in college.

But at 3-6 and with an inexperienced head coach having just turned convention on his ear, is this so crazy that it comes all the way back around to being sane?

I doubt it.

But never before has the football world been in a state where the absurd could somehow seem as plausible.

Maybe idiocy isn’t what it used to be. But in this case, it still is.

***

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Dwayne Stukes responds to D-Mac’s ‘idiotic’ suggestion of Pat Surtain on punt returns