ATLANTA — Cordarrelle Patterson thought about crying once he reached the end zone Sunday afternoon. Then he saw his Atlanta Falcons teammates running toward him to celebrate, and those emotions — they fell away really fast.
Patterson had made an NFL living as a special teams star, and Sunday was the culmination of it as he set the all-time record for kick return touchdowns on a 103-yard return in the second quarter of the Falcons’ 27-24 victory over the Chicago Bears, his ninth kick return for a touchdown.
“I was trying to shed a tear,” Patterson said. “They wouldn’t let me. It was good.”
The return broke the tie he had been in with Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington, who had eight kick return touchdowns in their careers.
On his record-setting return, Patterson started from the “A” in Atlanta’s end zone, took it out of the end zone and up the middle of the field and got a key block from Troy Andersen as he ran through Chicago’s coverage. He ran between Bears kicker Cairo Santos and defensive back Elijah Hicks at the Falcons’ 45-yard line — that’s when he knew he had a chance at the touchdown — then sprinted the rest of the way. Hicks almost tackled him from behind at the Chicago 5-yard line, but his diving attempt just missed Patterson.
“I was telling some guys on the sideline, like, ‘Who was this guy?’ He was like 10 yards back, this little [guy] is fast,” Patterson said. “I’m glad he didn’t get me, man. He did a good job trying to get me.
“The rest is history, man.”
Patterson was surprised Chicago, one of the other teams he has played for in his career, kicked to him and said he wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t see many more returns the rest of the season.
Patterson said after the game it hadn’t hit him yet he has the record and that it probably would when he saw his family later that day — and that the ball would probably end up going to his children. As he left the locker room after the game, he briefly chatted with quarterback Marcus Mariota and then left, clutching the record-setting ball in his right hand as he walked out.
THE KICK RETURN KING RETURNS. @ceeflashpee84
— NFL (@NFL) November 20, 2022
Earlier in the game, Patterson had fumbled on a run, turning the ball over. The fumble bothered him. The next time he touched the ball, he ran annoyed, as if he wanted to make up for his mistake.
It ended up as an NFL record.
“It’s pretty cool,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said, “when a guy breaks an NFL record.”
It was Patterson’s first kick return for a touchdown since 2020, when he led the league in kick returns (35), return yardage (1,017), longest return (104 yards) and touchdowns (one).
When Patterson reached the end zone, he was mobbed by his teammates. It was the seventh season of Patterson’s career in which he had a kick return for a touchdown, two more than any other player in NFL history. Before the 2022 season and coming off a career-best offensive year for him, Patterson was adamant that he remained on kick returns because he knew there was history to make.
“I’ve got a record to break, man,” Patterson said in July. “I need one more before I can hang it up being back there, man. If I get one more, I’ll stop doing it.”
Patterson laughed at the thought Sunday. No, he said, he’s not done returning kicks. If the Falcons want him back there, he’ll gladly keep doing it. He believes special teams is the reason he is still in the league 10 seasons in. So why would he leave it now.
It’s not clear whether that will actually be the case for Patterson, who led the NFL in kick return yards in 2019 and 2020 and three times led the league in average yards per kick return. Entering Sunday, Patterson had four kick returns this season for 112 yards, as opponents had not been letting him return as many kicks as he had in the past.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Patterson, who was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft by the Minnesota Vikings, has made the Pro Bowl four times and been a four-time first-team All-Pro as a returner.
Patterson is going to try to keep as much memorabilia as he can from this day — but he also figures the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will want at least something from his record-setting performance.
As for whether he might have a bust in Canton one day — being an NFL-record holder could help his case — Patterson again laughed. He’s not thinking about any of that yet.
“Honestly, man, I’m still playing, and I still got a lot of years left,” Patterson said. “I’m not even focused on the Hall of Fame, man. Devin Hester definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and I’m just trying to be as great as him.”
At least in kick returns, no one has done it better than Patterson.