Cordarrelle Patterson has always been different. From the moment he entered the league as an exciting raw wide receiver prospect out of the University of Tennessee to transitioning into being a legitimate running back, he always possessed a unique and compelling set of skills.
Some of that can be attributed to his mother’s powerful influence. The rest can be attributed to him offering genuine unpredictability within his arsenal of abilities. You never knew when he was going to produce a game-changing play, which is how he developed into being one of the most all-time feared kickoff returners. When Patterson gets the ball in his hands, he can do extraordinary things. His vision, elusiveness, awareness, and power have made him one of the most dangerous players in the league. The danger he can bring to opposing defenses never translated into consistent production.
For years, it was just a question of whether there was a coaching staff that could truly unlock his capabilities as an offensive weapon, a possibility that seemed to grow dimmer as the years went by. Insert Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone, and Charles London.
In Albert Breer’s Monday Morning Quarterback column, Smith talked about his vision when deciding to pursue Patterson. Ragone and London knew him well from their days coaching him in Chicago. They agreed that he could bring something different to the table.
Considering the severe limitations the Falcons had financially this past off-season, they had to take chances on unique role players that could develop into difference-makers. A 30-year-old dual-threat return specialist doesn’t exactly fit the bill for that. Terry Fontenot took a low-risk chance with the coaching staff’s backing. The hope outside of the organization was for Patterson to provide an occasional jolt to the offense while remaining a threat to turn a kick return into six points.
That occasional jolt has practically transformed into being the most explosive, productive offensive player on the team.
Only Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry have more total yards than Patterson this season. Those players are two of the most decorated running backs in the league. For Patterson to be next to them in a major statistic speaks volumes about his overall performance. It was evident that Matt Ryan trusted him from the start of the season. Between making catches as the security blanket to counter frequent blitzes to turning stretch runs into touchdowns, Patterson flourished against the Super Bowl champions in Week 2.
Those big plays eventually developed into a game where he simply took over and was the best player on the field. His three-touchdown performance against Washington made everyone realize the Falcons have something truly special on their hands. With Ryan and Smith fully believing in his abilities, Patterson is in a position where he is capable of anything. He can run between the tackles and make defenders miss at the second level. He can line up as a wide receiver and make terrific contested catches as he did against Washington. There are more unique ways to utilize him, such as putting him in bunch formations on the outside and next to Mike Davis in the backfield. The play design possibilities are consistently converting into highlight-reel plays.
Patterson was at the forefront of the Falcons’ offensive success against New Orleans. As the Saints’ defense completely neutralized him on the ground, they couldn’t stop him in the air. Patterson caught six passes for 126 yards. In standard fashion, the dynamic playmaker was efficient by catching six passes on all six targets. Smith had his share of coaching blemishes against the Saints, mainly continuing to experiment with Feleipe Franks option designs at the worst possible times.
What he did was extremely well is get Patterson in advantageous matchups and create downfield openings for Ryan. On the first drive, Kwon Alexander was isolated against him. He had no chance stopping Patterson, who ran a slick Sluggo to blaze past him with ease. That 34-yard reception on third down set the tone for the Falcons’ most impressive offensive performance of the season.
Evolving into a true playmaker
Many forget that Patterson was considered a colossal bust in Minnesota for his inability to develop into a capable wide receiver. The former first-round pick dropped too many passes, ran lazy routes, and couldn’t handle press coverage. Although he blossomed into becoming an All-Pro returner, Minnesota ultimately didn’t re-sign him. Patterson found success in Oakland, New England, and Chicago, but largely from kickoff returning duties and in the backfield as a running back.
When the Falcons signed him, it appeared he would be an exciting change-of-pace option behind Davis. His past shortcomings as a wide receiver made the possibility of him lining up on the outside and making game-changing plays past defenders downfield seem highly improbable. With a minute left in a one-point game against the Falcons’ biggest rival, Patterson made the biggest play of his short yet already spectacular career as a Falcon.
Smith decides to run an empty set with five receivers wide, as Patterson is lined up on the right with Tajae Sharpe. All of the receivers are running quick routes in the short and intermediate areas except Patterson. He is the only player going vertical. It’s a sound strategy as Kyle Pitts is commanding the safeties’ attention in the slot. That leaves Patterson isolated against Paulson Adebo. With the pocket quickly collapsing, Ryan throws a beautiful rainbow outside the numbers in stride to Patterson.
As he normally does after the catch, Patterson makes a tremendous play with the ball in his hands. His impressive body control helps him stay in bounds, turning a huge catch into a game-changing 64-yard play. After nearly collapsing in traditional Falcons’ fashion, the offense was aggressive on the first play and put themselves in a strong position to get the win they thoroughly deserved. How fitting it was for the Falcons’ two best players this season to connect to help them win a massive divisional game.
No slowing down
What Patterson has done as an all-around playmaker this season has been simply remarkable. There is no telling where the Falcons would be without his emergence as one of the most electrifying playmakers in the league. With Calvin Ridley taking time away from the sport, Patterson has formed the most unique wide receiver duo in the league with Kyle Pitts. Despite neither player being a traditional wide receiver, they move and make plays like a true wide receiver. Patterson’s versatility gives Smith countless options to keep defenses off balance. The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz made an excellent observation in how running no-huddle with Patterson on the field prevents the opposing defense from making substitutions. It’s another advantage that Smith will look to capitalize on with Ryan leading the way, who is coming off an exceptional performance against New Orleans.
No matter the pace of the game or the opposing defense’s strengths, Patterson will be ready to break things open. That was proven against one of the best defenses in the league last Sunday. He is more than capable of running crisp routes and making explosive plays as a wide receiver. As he has shown for the past several years, Patterson can flourish as a traditional running back. There is no limiting his touches. It’s only a matter of how defenses can contain him. Trying to slow down the multi-dimensional star playmaker will be a tall order for defenses going forward.
Smith has found the recipe in utilizing him. Ryan has built a strong rapport with him. Most of all, Patterson has found it within himself to make strides as a wide receiver and grow into being a productive running back. He has practically done it all this season. The only thing left for him to do is do what he is best known for, which is to return a kickoff for a touchdown.
The fan-favorite will also look to do his part to prevent the team from giving a tortured fanbase heart attacks. Doing his part has been the story of Patterson’s career. Now, he is doing his part as one of the focal points of a potential playoff team.