Patriots find their kick returner in Leon Washington

Patriots find their kick returner in Leon Washington
March 15, 2013, 5:00 pm
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If you've been a Patriots fan for the last decade, you know how much importance Bill Belichick puts on the special teams.

It's important to be sound in "all three phases of the game". Right, Bill?

Kick return was a particular problem for the Patriots last season. They averaged just 21.2 yards per kickoff, which put them 25th in the NFL.

That's where newly signed Leon Washington comes in. The two-time Pro Bowler (2008, 2012) and three-time All-Pro (2007, 2008, 2010) Washington averaged 29.0 yards per kick return with the Seahawks last season in 27 kick returns. The season before that with Seattle he averaged 25.2 yards per kick return in 43 kick returns.

Need, filled.

"Yeah, you hit it right on the head – the opportunity to help this team out, win football games by returning kicks," Washington said when asked about the Patriots need at that spot. "The one thing I did know about New England talking to Coach Belichick and talking to Coach O’Brien, they take special teams extremely serious. They feel like if you play special teams in the return game and the coverage part of it, you could actually win the football game by doing it well.

"By playing against those guys in the AFC East early on in my career when I was with the Jets, I had tremendous respect for guys like Larry Izzo, Kevin Faulk, watching Wes Welker return kicks and stuff like that, I had tremendous respect for those guys. I knew how seriously they took special teams so that was one of the things that helped me make my decision easier because I knew New England took special teams seriously."

Washington also returns punts, albeit at a less successful rate. He averaged 8.7 yards per punt return last season in 41 returns last season. He did average 11.3 yards per 41 returns the year before, however.

The 30-year-old Washington may not be as quick and nimble as he was in his 20's, but he's still got plenty of agility to succeed coming out of the end zone. The Patriots will no longer have to play safety Devin McCourty back there either, as they have a player who's first priority is returning.

"30 is the new 20, I’m a young man," Washington joked. "In all seriousness, it’s just something, when it comes to the kick return game, I take it very seriously because I understand how important it can make an impact on the game. If you just think about it, the kick returner is the first person to touch the ball at the beginning of the game or at halftime or after the opposing team scores a field goal or touchdown. You have an opportunity to instantly change the momentum of the game."

Washington, who said he feels great and would definitely answer any Patriots calls for the backfield, knew that at this stage in his career there were a few things that took precedent over others in looking at his next team.

"When I became a free agent, that’s one thing I wanted to look at: to go into an organization that believes in winning, who wanted to win the Super Bowl – that was everything – and did things the right way," he said. "When I had the opportunity to go to New England, I jumped right on it because they’re a perfect fit for being a better person and football player."