It's not like Dan Connollyhas never returned a kickoff before. The 28-year-old, 6-4, 313-pound guard has fielded a few intentionally short kicks in the past, wrapped both giant paws around the football, and charged ahead – slowly – for minimal gain. Before last night, his longest-ever return went 16 yards.
He had no way of knowing, however, that when he lined up for a kickoff at the end of the first half against Green Bay that he was seconds away from setting an NFL record.
The Packers had just scored their second touchdown to go up 17-7 over the Patriots, and, with time winding down before intermission, Green Bay kicker Mason Crosbydelivered a line-drive squib kick to keep the ball away from dangerous return man Brandon Tate, who's taken two kickoffs the distance this season, plus another in the preseason.
Mind you, this also came after Green Bay successfully executed an on-side kick to start the game.
This time, though, when Connolly picked up the bouncing ball, something bizarre happened. It almost seemed like the Packers kick coverage unit didn't realize he had the ball tucked under both arms. Connolly rumbled right past three of them, cut to his left, switched the ball to his left hand (in a humorously awkward way, with the nose of the ball directly pointing upward), and turned on the turbo as best a 300-plus-pound man can.
Connolly then stiff-armed Packers safety Charlie Peprah, who was in hot pursuit, and kept chugging along down the left sideline, right in front of the Patriots bench. With the end zone now plainly in sight, everyone in Gillette Stadium rose to their feet.
"Everybody was out of their seats when we realized he was about to score," linebacker Tully Banta-Cainrecalled immediately afterward.
"It was like Gayle Sayersout there!" he exclaimed with a laugh.
"I thought he was [Danny] Woodhead, only bigger," rookie tight end Aaron Hernandezjoked.
Connolly then sidestepped two more Packer coverage defenders and appeared headed for a touchdown.
"Well, when you kick the ball, you would like to kick it to an offensive lineman," Packers boss Mike McCarthyexplained in the post-game. "That should be a positive for a kick-off coverage team, so we did a very poor job there tackling."
But eventually, Green Bay running back John Kuhnand linebacker Robert Francoiscombined to tackle Connolly from behind, just four yards short of pay dirt.
"It was a good run," head coach Bill Belichickremarked to reporters later. "It kind of looked like he was looking to go down, but then they just couldn't really find anybody to tackle him. It was a good job by the kickoff [return] team. [Green Bay] short-kicked us all day, really, with the pooch kicks and the squib kick there. We've been working on those, so it was an alert play by Dan, but also by the blocking to get in front of him there and at least get him started."
"Oh, it was huge," linebacker and co-captain Jerod Mayobeamed. "Seeing that guy, a 300-pounder, running down the field … I thought he was [going to score], but I knew when he got down there, our offense was going to score."
Which they did three plays later, when QB Tom Bradyhit an uncovered Hernandez with a two-yard pass. On the previous play from scrimmage, Connolly came into the game again as an eligible receiver, lining up in the backfield as the lead blocker for running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Apparently, Connolly suffered a head injury on the play and did not return to action.
Nevertheless, his shining moment was still bringing smiles to his teammates faces long after the game ended.
"I'll tell you what," fellow o-lineman Matt Lightdeclared, "Dan Connolly right now probably has the greatest return average in the National Football League. That was incredible, it was a heck of an effort, I couldn't believe it when I was watching it to be honest with you."
"That was the longest kickoff return ever and the longest … I've never seen anything happen so slow in my life," Brady quipped. "It was an unbelievable play. I can never imagine anything like that is going to happen. That really was a big play in the game. If it happens, we've got to take advantage of it and Danny [made] that heads-up play, smart. They won't be kicking to him anymore, I'll tell you that."
Perhaps rookie linebacker Dane Fletchersummed it up best.
"I didn't think Connolly would ever score. I didn't think he'd make it 20 yards. I was very happy for him," Fletcher said, laughing. "I just wish he got in the end zone."