You stand back there, following the flight of the football with an eagle eye or else — knowing full well there are all these kamikaze maniacs running full speed at you with the type of murderous intentions the young Mike Tyson would understand.
“I do think you have to have a little screw loose, and I think I do have a little screw loose up top,” Andre Roberts said, and smiled. “I think if you’re gonna be a high-level punt returner in the league, you have to be just a little off. Not to say you’re crazy or anything, but you have to have the right mindset.”
He turns 31 next month and the Jets are his fifth team, and he deserves to have a Pro Bowl mindset for the first time at the end of a career season returning punts (league-best 15.3-yard average) and kickoffs (fourth at 27.1), as does kicker Jason Myers. So Sam Darnold isn’t the only silver lining in this dark Jets cloud.
“You just have to kinda be fearless,” Roberts said. “You gotta know you’re not gonna fair catch every time just ’cause somebody’s in your face, and you gotta know sometimes you’re gonna take a shot when you’re not looking, when your head’s in the sky. And you have to make those decisions when guys are running at you full speed.”
It is why he loves returning punts more than returning kickoffs.
“It happens so fast. It’s obviously different from kick return, and hopefully they don’t take that part of it out of the game,” he said. “You have to be quick on your toes and not everybody can do it.”
Every returner has his own style.
“I asked one of my teammates today: ‘Am I a bounce guy or am I a hit-it guy?’ And he’s like, ‘Ahhh, you’re probably a hit-it guy,’” Roberts said. “So I would say the same. I don’t try to do too many moves if I don’t have to. I like to be a north-south and get the yards quick.”
Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer applauds Roberts’ fearlessness and raves about his vision and synergy with his blockers.
“The guys believe every return has a chance to go to the house, and when you’re a player, just from experience, when you have a guy back there that you feel good about and you know can make a true difference in the game, it changes how people think,” Boyer said.
People such as Brandon Copeland.
“You’ve seen games they’re not even kicking to him, right? That says a lot,” Copeland said.
Copeland referenced the respect the Bills showed him.
“They ended up squibbing it and keeping it away from him,” Copeland said. “That just tells how dangerous a returner he is. Every time we get a chance to block for him, we hear that crowd, and whether we’re at a home game or away game, we hear that crowd starting to cheer or boo, and we know that he’s breaking something, so it’s great being able to block for a guy like him.”
Roberts knows the euphoria/disaster of a touchdown return. Last season with the Falcons, he had an 80-yard punt return TD against the Jets called back on an illegal block in the back against Sharrod Neasman. But then there was his 78-yard punt return for a touchdown on opening night in Detroit.
“It’s a great feeling, and then the craziest thing, the first thought you have in your head is ‘I just scored a touchdown, but are there any flags?’ ” Roberts said.
“Fortunately you look back and the field-goal team is coming on the field and everybody’s celebrating, so you know there’s no flag.”
The way Roberts works at his craft even impresses Josh McCown, the ultimate professional.
“I love watching film,” Roberts said. “I’m big on knowing how the punter’s kicking, which way he’s trying to punt, if the ball turns over or not. … I see the smallest things on film. … I think that helps when game time comes.”
His mother didn’t let him play organized football until eighth grade, and it wasn’t difficult to identify his favorite player once he began returning at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. and then at The Citadel.
“Devin Hester, the best of all time, obviously. … Dante Hall was a different kind of returner with a lot of moves, but I probably watched Devin Hester’s returns a million times just trying to figure out why he was so good and why he was the best to ever do it,” Roberts said.
Why was he?
“Decision-making,” Roberts said. “I think one of the best things he did is make decisions quick. Obviously you have to catch the ball, protect the ball and everything, but when he saw a hole, he hit it and hit it quick.”
Roberts credits Cardinals legend Larry Fitzgerald for some early words of wisdom.
“He told me early on when you come in every year during OTAs and training camp, come in like a rookie,” Roberts said. “Pretty much that meant train like a rookie, train like you’re trying to make the squad, because there’s always gonna be somebody else coming to take your spot. I understand exactly what he means.”
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Roberts has wide-receiver aspirations, and had 64 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns his third year with the Cardinals. He has four catches for 35 yards this season.
“I haven’t got to play receiver as much as I wanted, but they gave me opportunity to be the returner so I’ve done well with that,” Roberts said.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything differently,” Roberts said. “I’m working just as hard as I’ve worked when I got in the NFL, and I think that’s the kind of thing that’s helped me catapult to where I am right now.”
A most unhappy season for most Jets, but many happy returns from Andre Roberts.