Brandin Cooks wasn’t used to catching punts at first.
The lights in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome were blinding. He couldn’t hear anything. All he wanted to do was catch the ball and get it back to the offense.
“If you will see, at the beginning of the season, I was basically fair catching everything,” Cooks said. “All I wanted to do was just have the ball back for our offense.”
That is no longer the rookie’s method of operation. He’s starting to settle in and get used to his role as punt returner. It is still far from perfect, but he feels like he’s starting to make progress in recent weeks.
Cooks, who has returned only nine punts this season, currently ranks 55th among all players with an average of 3.4 yards per return. His 15 fair catches, however, rank seventh in the NFL.
It’s a number some observers feel is way too high.
The rookie admits that there have been times this season when he’s waived his arms, made a fair catch, and then realized afterward that he made the wrong decision. But there have also been times when he has received unfair criticism.
“First couple weeks that happened a little bit,” Cooks, who returned a punt a season-long 15 yards against the Detroit Lions in Week 7, said. “I’m being more aggressive. I’m more sure-handed on trying to catch those fair catches. A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on. When they kick it from 50, more than likely you’re going to fair catch or it’s going to be a touchback.”
And as far as the criticism is concerned, coach Sean Payton does not believe the issue with the lack of returns falls squarely on Cooks’ shoulders. He’s voiced his displeasure with the return unit this season at a few different junctures, but those criticisms are typically directed toward the other players on those units not getting back in time to open holes for Cooks.
He reiterated that Friday when asked if he ever considered a change at punt returner at any juncture this season.
“No, if I felt it was a returner issue we would look at that but I think the key is and each game is different but a few of the options last week or opportunities were backed up situations but I like what Brandin (Cooks) has shown,” Payton said. “We just have to make sure that when we get those field opportunities where we are actually returning a punt as opposed to backed up that we take advantage of it.”
Still, even with the backing of his coach, Cooks feels that he still needs to make progress. One area where he feels he’s lacking is that he’s been too ridged in his approach.
He follows the script. If the call is for him to return it to his left, even when there’s a lane to the right, he always goes left. That’s something he would like to change and he knows that he could be more successful if he allowed his creativity to take over now and then.
“I’m starting to think that a little bit,” Cooks said. “I got to pick and choose when I’m going to do that. I can’t do that all the time and show that I’m being a rebel out there and not being within our scheme. I do have to do what I’m told to do, but sometimes there’s a chance I could do that. It hasn’t happened yet.”
He’s getting there, though. And when that opportunity comes, Cooks says he will be ready to take advantage.
“I’m getting more comfortable to where you know I want to catch it and do something with it,” Cooks said.