It seemed like a long time coming.
The reality is that Marc Mariani’s first punt return for a touchdown this season happened sooner than his first a year ago, when he was named to the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s return specialist.
“To hit one, finally, in the ninth game of the year … just because of the expectations with the success we had last year, I was not growing impatient I really just wanted to make a play,” Mariani said. “I’m not going to press. I’m not going to try to do more than I need to.
“My job is to make good decisions back there and to make big plays when my number’s called. To get a chance to do that was pretty special. And it was well worth the wait.”
Mariani gave the Tennessee Titans a 7-0 lead and started them on their way to a 30-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, when he took back a punt 79 yards after the defense held on the game’s opening possession.
In 2010, he didn’t score on a punt return until the 10th game. Then, he went 87 yards against the Washington Redskins.
The difference is that last season, he went the distance on a kickoff return well before then. This time — in the wake of rules changes implemented this season — the majority of his chances with kickoffs ended before they even got started.
“I think we switched over a few weeks ago and put a lot more emphasis on the punt return game because we were getting more opportunities there,” Mariani said. “We were looking to make a big play. We were blocking punts and we had been getting a few nicer returns, but we are looking to break one every time we take the field.”
Key to the changes on kickoffs is that the ball is now spotted on the 35 instead of the 30. For most NFL kickers, the end zone is well within reach and the back of the end zone is not out of the question.
To illustrate what a difference that has made, consider that Mariani had more than twice as many kickoff returns (60) as punt returns (27) during his rookie season. Just past the halfway point of this one, he has exactly twice as many punt returns (22) as kickoff returns (11).
He did not even record an actual kickoff return until the fourth game. It was in Week 4 last season that he took one back 98 yards for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos.
Ultimately he set the franchise record for combined kickoff/punt return yards with 1,859. He has a total of 526 this season.
“With the rule changes I didn’t know what to expect, and it has been frustrating on kick returns,” Mariani said.
He earned his Pro Bowl invitation, in part, because he was one of only two players in the league who returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns. The other was Atlanta’s Eric Weems, whom the Titans must defend Sunday when they face the Falcons in Atlanta (3:15 p.m., CBS). Weems has registered 17 punt returns and 16 kickoff returns this season with a long of 37 in each and no touchdowns.
There’s still time for Mariani to double up again this season, but with the new kickoff rules there might not be much opportunity.
“It wasn’t like I set out to [make the Pro Bowl] last year,” he said. “It was something that really was just icing on top of the icing on top of the cake.
“I think in the back of my head it’s there. It’s not something that I think has to be or is a make or break thing.”
He’s happy finally just to have broken free on a return. Any return.