INDIANAPOLIS — It's taken more than a year to manifest, but the contributions that the Indianapolis Colts hoped they'd get from running back Nyheim Hines as a return specialist came to fruition on Sunday in his dazzling performance against the Carolina Panthers, garnering all sorts of reactions afterwards.
"He's special," running back Marlon Mack interrupted with a whisper to a room of reporters while Hines spoke to the media after the game.
"Gale Sayers. I mean, he's Gale Sayers out there today," Colts owner Jim Irsay said of Hines. "He thrilled our fans. It's worth the price of admission to see such exciting plays from him."
Recently inserted as the Colts' primary punt returner after a season-ending injury to wide receiver Chester Rogers, Hines shined in his most extensive action to date. By the end of Sunday's game, he had three huge returns — two of which he returned for touchdowns — and had set new single-game career highs in punt return yards (195) and all-purpose yards (201).
Those two punt return touchdowns and 195 total punt return yards? They're single-game franchise records; the yardage is the fourth most in a game in NFL history. Here are other noteworthy bits about Hines' impressive performance on Sunday:
- He's the first player in the NFL since 2012 to have multiple punt return touchdowns in a game and the first to have 195 yards and 2 touchdowns since 2004.
- His career-long 84-yard punt return for a touchdown is the longest punt return for a score by a Colts player since 2007. It also marked the team's first punt return for a touchdown dating back to Nov. 25, 2012.
- His 195 punt return yards are the most in an NFL game since 2004.
- Hines is now the fifth player with two punt returns for touchdowns of 70 yards or longer in a single game in NFL history, according to NFL Communications.
And even after such a standout performance, Hines was quick to deflect the credit as he described how he broke free time and time again on Sunday.
"Honestly, where I have to make one or two guys miss, that's not really me; that's the rest of the guys on the team," Hines said. "On both (touchdown) returns, I think I had to make like one or two guys miss, and everybody else was blocked. That's really the return guys, that's not really me. Really, honestly I wish I could bring them all up here for me, but those are the guys that made it happen."
Hines started things off by returning Carolina's opening-drive punt for 40 yards; unquestionably a nice return, but something seen in the NFL on a regular basis. Had the second-year North Carolina State product not tried so hard to get by punter Michael Palardy and gotten caught from behind by defensive end Brian Burns, however, it could've been a completely different outcome.
"I tried to make him miss," Hines said. I was kicking myself about that."
The Panthers again went three-and-out on their next drive and punted to Hines, but he wasn't going to be stopped this time.
He fielded the punt from his 16-yard line, quickly assessed what was in front of him, broke left and then a subtle cut allowed him to turn on the jets as his blockers finished escorting him to the end zone for an 84-yard touchdown.
"It starts at the kick," Hines said. "I see the kicker kick the ball. It has a lot of distance, not really high in the air. And I look down and I see all the other 10 guys blocking, and I know I have space. When I catch the ball and look down, that means those guys have already done their job."
One punt return touchdown is exciting enough, but Hines would explode once again in the fourth quarter.
Leading 24-6 with 7:30 left in the game and with the Colts looking to create an insurmountable lead with their ensuing possession, Hines took it upon himself to put more points on the board.
He fielded Palardy's punt at his own 29-yard line, made several cuts and then bounced to the right sideline as his blockers bullied Carolina's punt unit and Hines danced his way into the end zone to create that insurmountable lead in the Colts' favor.
"Dangerous return man," Panthers interim head coach Perry Fewell said of Hines. "We didn't get population to the ball. The opportunities they had were explosive. We tried to punt the ball away from him, tried to put it out of bounds. We did not do that — just hit the ball and the result was two touchdowns."
Hines had a huge performance on Sunday, but a lot of the work that goes into that success is put in before the game even starts. He said he chats with punter Rigoberto Sanchez before every contest about the tendencies of the opposing punters and kickoff specialists.
"I knew everything about the kicker," Hines said. "Rigo, every week he helps me with the guys in pregame warmups. He tells me stuff about the other punter — he's a punter, so he knows."
Hines also had the benefit of terrific blocking, both at the point of attack and as he broke free on all three of his big returns. On the two touchdowns, specifically, it was fellow running back Jonathan Williams and then linebacker E.J. Speed that really sprung Hines into the open field.
"It's something that we show on film all the time, we talk about it all the time," Colts head coach Frank Reich said of those blocks. "They both pulled off just shielding with their body. You don't see a lot of guys do that. Really smart plays by them."
It appears that Hines' journey to success as a punt returner has come full circle. He struggled mightily with ball security while returning punts in training camp and the preseason as a rookie last year, but never stopped working at it with special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone and assistant special teams coach Frank Ross, knowing he could be propelled back into a returner role at any time.
That approach sure paid off on Sunday.
"Yeah, it's hard to imagine. Even in my prayer before every Sunday, I literally say, 'Lord, without you I have a preseason like I had last year. With you, I can do all things and score touchdowns.' I literally say that very prayer," Hines said. "I was kind of down and didn't really have the confidence that I needed to. So, maybe it was it was great that I had to wait a whole year to get another opportunity and the whole time I was building confidence. Franky was just telling me I was going to have an opportunity."