CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Marcus Murphy has been granted precious few return chances in his first few weeks in the NFL.
Then a penalty flag granted him a second chance at an opportunity he’d initially squandered.
Murphy responded with an electrifying 74-yard punt return, staking the Saints to a 16-10 lead at the beginning of the third quarter of Sunday’s 27-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers by producing the team’s first punt return for a touchdown since Darren Sproles victimized the Packers in the 2011 season opener.
“We have great resolve on this team to bounce back from whatever high or low we face,” Saints quarterback Luke McCown said. “He fumbles a punt, and re-kick, and he takes it to the house. That’s great resolve, and that’s what you want to see in a team. You saw that in a rookie.”
Being a return man in the NFL is much more of a waiting game than Murphy faced in college at Missouri.
NFL kickers routinely boot kickoffs out of the back of the end zone. NFL punters are exceptional directional kickers, adept at taking away return chances. Despite all of the momentum he’d built in the preseason, Murphy stepped onto the field in Carolina with just one kickoff return and two punt returns to his name.
“Being in this league, I quickly learned that’s something you’ve got to get used to,” Murphy said. “You won’t necessarily get the opportunity in the game, and every opportunity that you think you have, you might not have.”
And Murphy had muffed one of those returns deep in his own territory against Tampa Bay.
So when he let his first opportunity against Carolina slip through his arms, Murphy thought he’d blown another chance to show what he can do.
“The first punt, that’s one thing I’ve been working on, just focusing and judging the ball,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of different factors — the rain and everything — but I’ve got to be accountable. I’ve got to take care of the ball. Luckily, I got a second chance.”
Then the Saints noticed the flag. A Carolina gunner was flagged 15 yards for running out of bounds, and instead of taking the yardage, Saints coach Sean Payton decided to put his trust in Murphy to hold onto the ball and make something happen.
“It was a 15-yard penalty, and we could have taken it from the point of the foul, and we just chose to back them up and give our guys another shot at a return,” Payton said. “I’m sure it was good for his confidence to get the second opportunity.”
Carolina punter Brad Nortman gave Murphy the space he needed, booming a 55-yard kick that offered a little bit of room.
Murphy took a step back from his initial position, fielded the punt, side-stepped an oncoming gunner and took off up the left side of the field, out-running a Carolina linebacker to make the turn around the edge.
Under normal circumstances, a punt returner likes to get up the field as fast as possible, but Murphy’s dash to the perimeter gave the Saints’ blockers time to set up a convoy down the left sideline.
“First of all, I like to set up my blocks,” Murphy said. “The guys up front are going to block their tails off, so I just want to set up the block and make it a little easier on them. Then, once I’ve got the block set up, just hit the seam. Hit it as fast as I can and take it to the end zone.”
Murphy slid in behind a cavalcade of blockers, made a move to the inside past a diving Nortman and raced away with the ball, handing the Saints the kind of momentum-changing play New Orleans envisioned when the team decided to use its final pick of the 2015 draft to take a player who had to help on special teams.
A return man may not always get many chances in the NFL.
Now, Murphy’s proven he can make those chances count.