FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It began with a toss to the left, a hole and well-blocked play. As the rusher ran through the Denver Broncos‘ defense for 46 yards — most of it untouched — in 2019, it seemed like it might be one good play, one small wrinkle.
Yet in a sport obsessed with details and minutiae, it sparked something else — something not seen until two years and a city later: The rejuvenation of an idea of how to use Cordarrelle Patterson, who is having a breakout season with the Atlanta Falcons.
What if Patterson, a first-round pick with a unique combination of size, skill, speed and vision, could become more than an All-Pro returner and average NFL receiver? What if there was a way to be more creative?
“Got up to 21 or 22 miles an hour,” then-Bears running backs coach Charles London said. “And you were like, ‘OK, maybe we have something here.'”
The genesis of turning Patterson into a hybrid player began that day, when he was with the Bears, against the Broncos. There had always been flirtation with the concept of turning Patterson into an all-purpose offensive option. New England tried it 2018 — but the experiment stalled when Patterson arrived in Chicago in 2019.
Other than a play here or there, like the one against the Broncos, Patterson went back to receiver. Then, in 2020, the Bears looked at Patterson’s work in New England and remembered the toss in Week 2. It was apparent the initial thought of “there could be something there” was worth exploring and building on. They could convert Patterson from receiver and kick returner into a running back.
Could anyone have predicted what Patterson has become since? He’s turned in a career year with the Falcons, his fifth team and the first to figure out how to turn him into an offensive powerhouse. Patterson has established career highs in pretty much everything on offense — carries (106), rushing yards (489), rushing touchdowns (4), receiving yards (518) and receiving touchdowns (5) with the Falcons. He’s one catch from tying his career best mark of 45, too.
“It feels like I haven’t been doing enough these last, past eight years,” Patterson said. “This year, every year is just a blessing. We know football don’t last long, so every year is a blessing to come here and just to showcase myself and just show the team what I can do to help this team win.”
Without Patterson, the Falcons have looked somewhat lost offensively. In the six quarters he didn’t play this season, Atlanta was held scoreless. At age 30, Patterson has become the most indispensable skill position player in Atlanta’s offense.
“CP has had a huge impact this year,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Certainly, when you sign somebody in free agency, you hope to get a decent amount of production.
“He’s exceeded that.”
Patterson remembers the conversation. At some point between the end of the 2019 season and virtual meetings held in the spring before the Bears’ 2020 season, the idea of moving to running back was broached.
London said Patterson inquired about making the move; Patterson said coaches approached him. London also said there was no one coach who suggested it, but a group effort of trying to figure out a way to “maximize his skill set.” No matter the mechanics of who went to whom first, the feeling was mutual.
Why not give it a shot?
“I was like, ‘S—, whatever you all need me to do,'” Patterson said. “They know my mindset and everything.”
It’s a mindset he has had since before he got to the NFL, he seemed to do a bit of everything at the University of Tennessee. In the NFL, Patterson developed into one of the best kick returners ever — tied for the league’s all-time kick return touchdown mark with eight, third all-time in career kick return average (29.4) behind Gale Sayers and Lynn Chandnois and 11th all-time in kick return yardage.
Making the move was sensible — how he saw holes in the kick return game could translate to being a running back. His speed was better than many backs, and at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, size wasn’t an issue. But the transition wasn’t as simple as changing the position room.
He had to learn a new position in his eighth season in the league.
“He was used to seeing the game from a different perspective, seeing it from the receiver position so it was different for him,” said London, now Atlanta’s quarterbacks coach. “And we had to spend a lot of time just going through the fundamentals, like this is how you take a handoff, these are the tracks. He really had to spend a lot of time studying fronts and what that is and blitz protection.
“All stuff that was foreign to him.”
Patterson learned how to properly take a handoff and the initial steps before and after it. Blocking concepts were different. This was pass-protection concepts and switch calls from the quarterback — if a play is changed he might need to pick up an entirely different pass-rusher. Patterson said London made the transition easy, but there were the thoughts of “What am I doing?”
“Of course,” Patterson said. “I’m like, ‘Hold on now, this, I’ve never did this in my life.’ I had played it here and there, but full-time running back, I was like, ‘Oh Lord, this is different.'”
It didn’t help he had no on-field offseason because of COVID-19 protocols keeping workouts virtual in the spring. Starting from close to zero, London and Patterson spent a lot of time on Zoom before the 2020 season. They went through everything.
The first actual practice, in training camp last year, London made it easy. By the end of it, Patterson felt like this was the right move.
A couple of games into 2020, London said Patterson had a better feel for how to press certain holes, where to cut, where his eyes needed to be on a certain play to give it a better chance of success. Other backs were willing to help, too. London said David Montgomery, the team’s top back, helped Patterson with some of the nuances.
But it was clear it was a process. Patterson, in the year of transition, had a then-career-high 64 carries for 232 yards, along with 21 catches for 132 yards. It was a start, but at age 29, who knew if it would end up being a finish?
Patterson was a free agent and two of his biggest advocates, London and then-Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone, left Chicago for Atlanta.
Smith believes in having a plan for every player. He has said it over and over when he has spoken to the media throughout his first season as Falcons coach. And as they started to look at players who were free agents, players who might fit Smith’s offense and his mindset, Patterson made sense.
Smith values players who can do multiple things and play multiple positions.
“Rags and I talked about it and there was a plan,” London said. “And Rags went to Art and said these are the things that we’ve done with him before, and this is where we think it could evolve to and where we think it could go.”
They brought the idea to Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot — the final arbiters on whether to try and sign a player.
Having London and Ragone in Atlanta made signing with the Falcons “kind of a no-brainer” for Patterson. They’d helped start the vision for him a year ago and believed it could continue in a new city and offensive scheme — one that had been friendly to running backs and playmakers with the Tennessee Titans. He also appreciated Smith’s approach of wanting to spread around the ball.
“CP is a guy who through my history in this league, I’ve tried to sign him multiple times,” Ragone said. “Most times he’s left me at the altar. The last two times, we’ve been able to get him.
“In my mind, because of what I think of the person first and then the player, I think he creates a different matchup than most guys in this league because, again, he was drafted as a wide receiver, and he is, arguably, a Hall of Fame returner. So with the ball in his hands, he’s dynamic.”
There was a difference, too. Instead of being forced to work virtually for an offseason, Patterson now had a year’s worth of work to look back on and an offseason to familiarize himself with the hybrid role Atlanta created for him.
Throughout training camp, Patterson drilled over-and-over again at running back. He still needed to learn the nuance of pass-protection — something London said he didn’t focus on last season and credited current Atlanta running backs coach Desmond Kitchings with helping — but there was promise.
“Playing receiver, you ain’t worrying about picking up blitzes or anything like that,” Patterson said. “Playing running back, you have to pick up blitzes and know protections and all that stuff. I would say that’s probably the hardest thing.”
Then the season began. And Patterson, whose career had always brimmed with intrigue and potential, started to play more consistently.
It was, like so much of his career, a slow build. Nine touches against Philadelphia, but a productive 67 yards on a day when Atlanta’s offense didn’t score a touchdown. Twelve touches the following week for 69 yards.
It set up the explosion, when Patterson became more than an ancillary player in Atlanta’s offense. He had three straight games of over 100 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against Washington.
“He’s not your typical running back,” Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said. “There’s a lot more you have to look out for when you cover him. But for me, the speed matchup, usually he’s a problem. He’s definitely a problem.”
And he’s harder to find than most. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Patterson has lined up as a running back 121 times, outside receiver 25 times, slot receiver 11 times, tight end three times, fullback twice and quarterback once.
That Patterson can line up in those places puts strain on opposing defenses.
“Put a receiver back there they can actually hand the ball off to, now you got a running back that might be standing out there as a receiver, well somebody has to cover him,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “So do you want a defensive back playing like a linebacker or a linebacker out there playing like a DB, how do you want to handle that? There’s a lot of different variations there.
“It makes it hard. It’s kind of the evolution of the offense and the offensive talent and how people are using them.”
Players similar to Patterson have existed before with varying levels of success. There’s three-time Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf as well as Percy Harvin. Deebo Samuel, Laviska Shenault Jr., Denard Robinson, Jamal Agnew, Curtis Samuel and J.D. McKissic are others. Not every player is the same — both in usage and ability. But the idea has been constant.
Patterson is the latest rendition.
“You can argue that he’s a running back and you can argue that he played at wideout,” Ragone said. “So the defense has to have a plan for him. For us, we just love that he’s a football player.”
Patterson could be leading the NFL into a different type of world — a world of positionless football, where a team accumulates as many playmakers as possible and then figures out the best way to use them.
“I feel like he should have been used like that his whole career because he’s such a dynamic player and you put the ball in his hands,” said Agnew, himself a hybrid over the years. “Just coming from a defensive perspective, covering kicks against this guy, it’s hard to tackle that man. You just put the ball in his hands, he’s going to make somebody miss. He’s going to run through somebody. He can do so many different things. He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s tall.
Patterson knows it. He smiles as he stands off to the side after practice on a recent afternoon, reflecting on the year he has had and what’s to come. Because Cordarrelle Patterson, in the midst of a career year and an unexpected surge in his production, could be on the verge of becoming something lasting.
Patterson could, when his career is over, become known as a pioneer for players without a set position.
“I hope so, man,” Patterson said. “It’s just going to open everything up for a lot of guys, man, who just think they just got to play one position.”