ASHBURN, Va. -- As he drifted, Chris Thompson wasn’t sure if he was going sideways or backwards. He knew the golden rule of punt returns: Plant your feet at the 10-yard line and if you backpedal, let the ball go.
Instead, Thompson called for a fair catch at the 5-yard line and learned a lesson about fielding punts in his first NFL game. Thompson isn’t visible on the All-22 film when the ball is immediately punted, but within a second he’s in the picture -- and he was already at the 5 and moving about 10-15 yards to his left.
Later in the first half he fielded a punt at the 6-yard line and returned it only five yards, putting his offense again in a bad spot. This time, he backpedaled four yards as the ball arrived.
“The hard part is realizing if you’re stepping back or just staying lateral,” he said of the fair catch. “That was really the thing. I was running laterally, but I didn’t know I was losing yards at the same time.”
Thompson clearly hopes for a better game returning punts and kickoffs at Green Bay on Sunday. Coach Mike Shanahan said after the game that Thompson needed to improve his decision-making and put the offense in a better spot.
“The more experience he gets, the better he’s going to be,” Shanahan said.
Thompson said he can do a better job setting up his blockers on returns. Or just hit his spot faster. It’s tough, but necessary, to learn those lessons. For example, he said, on his punt return he tried to sell an outside run then cut back to the middle.
“I should have just caught it and hit it right outside immediately,” he said.
Agreed: There was room and he received an excellent block by Jerome Murphy that should have cleared a lane, but because he cut back in it pushed a defender into Thompson. But it’s easy to second-guess a split-second decision.
On kickoffs the Eagles covered him well. On his three kickoff returns he caught each ball in the right half of the end zone and tried to take it wide left. A disciplined unit will stop that and the Eagles did.
In the preseason Thompson did a good job of being patient and setting up blockers, drawing in defenders and then cutting sharply. That’s why he won the job. He also knows he can’t leave the offense in a bad spot and none of his four returns -- three kickoffs and one punt -- gave the offense the ball past the Eagles’ 21-yard line. Only one got past the 20.
“I felt real comfortable,” Thompson said. “Just a little nerves being the first official game. I have to improve and I have to do a better job setting my guys up.”
He also said the decision-making on kick returns is mostly up to him and upback Niles Paul and not special-teams coach Keith Burns. Thompson will line up about five yards deep in the end zone and if he has to backpedal, he is supposed to just down the ball. If he’s moving forward or can get momentum, then he’ll return it.
“[Burns] leaves that on us,” Thompson said. “We just make sure we make the right decision. If I bring it out, I need to get past the 20. I’ve just got to work better on making those decisions.”