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Five from 50: How Jordan Norwood made the most of a fragile moment and set a Super Bowl record
The next in our series for the fifth anniversary of Super Bowl 50 features the story of Jordan Norwood and his record-setting 61-yard punt return, which almost didn’t happen.
By Ben Swanson Feb 02, 2021

With the fifth anniversary of Super Bowl 50 nearly upon us, we’re spending the week sharing stories from five players who made key plays in the game. Today, we hear from receiver and return specialist Jordan Norwood, who set a Super Bowl record when he returned a second-quarter punt 61 yards. It was Norwood's only return of the day, and it almost didn't happen.

Any successful punt return is a fragile thing.

Jordan Norwood's Super Bowl record-setting one perhaps was more fragile than any of them.

At several points — some even before he jogged out to field the kick — it could have shattered into nothingness.

The first unlikelihood was that he was even out there to begin with.

Returning punts wasn't something Norwood did much before the 2015 season. His entire experience in that role could be summarized briefly: He returned two punts during four years at Penn State and four during his 2011 season with the Browns. That was it.

In 2015, Denver largely gave the responsibility to two players: sure-handed veteran Emmanuel Sanders and explosive returner Omar Bolden. Sanders fielded most of the punts that year, but Bolden provided the Broncos' only punt returns of more than 14 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown against the Colts. In the playoffs, Bolden took the team's first punt return and was immediately electric, taking the ball 42 yards down the field to set up a scoring drive vs. Pittsburgh. But Bolden wouldn't get the opportunity to return another; he suffered a season-ending knee injury three drives later.

Sanders was atop the depth chart for punt returner after that, but Norwood took much of the return reps and returned three in the AFC Championship. With Sanders' large role on offense as a starter at receiver, Norwood received more opportunities to return punts in the conference championship and Super Bowl.

"Punt return duties are always something that's … I don't want to say it's tough, but it's not easy, especially if you're getting snaps on offense, too," Norwood says. "It's not easy mentally to see the defense on third down, know that offensively you've got a big drive coming up, and you're like, Oh, yeah, wait — I've got to go do this punt return in between the defense getting off the field and the offense coming on the field.

"It definitely took some physical reps but also the mental part of it, kind of locking in and knowing that I'm going to be taking on those duties, along with Emmanuel. I think Emmanuel went into the Super Bowl as kind of the number one on the depth chart, punt return-wise. But yeah it's just one of those things where you've got to be there mentally. And it definitely took some extra reps."

That brings us to the second point that was necessary to create Norwood's historic punt return: Sanders opting not to take it.

Denver's defense had just halted Carolina on what could have been a crucial drive. Carolina got the ball near midfield, and with just one first down, the Panthers could have tied the game. Instead, the Broncos pushed them back and broke up a pass on third down to force a punt.

Even without a score, though, Carolina was in position to pin Denver deep in their own territory. Before the change of possession, Sanders approached Norwood on the sideline.

"[He] kind of turned to me and was like, Hey, do you want to get this one? And I was like, Yeah, of course, man," Norwood says.

Sanders cleared the change with Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis and Norwood jogged onto the field, backing up to the 10-yard line. Punt returns this far in your territory are dangerous propositions: simply forgetting where you are on the field could result in terrible field position for the offense when a touchback was more likely, and, even worse, a misjudged ball could cause a turnover just yards from the end zone.

It was not a good punt. Panthers punter Brad Nortman hit it high and quite short. Norwood sprinted to get in position to catch it at the 25-yard line. A fair catch would have been a victory in itself, but Norwood didn't make the signal — even though he now thinks he should have.

This was the third point.

"The ball hung up there a little bit longer than I thought," Norwood says. "By the time I thought about fair catching it, I realized that I probably wouldn't have time to throw my hand up there and get it back down and field the ball successfully. I just kind of scrapped it said, I'll just field the ball and probably get tackled right away. I end up getting bumped a little bit before I even catch the ball or as I catch the ball. So as I catch it, I already feel like, OK, there's probably going to be a flag on them because they bumped me. And then you immediately kind of see them start to hold off on tackling me, and that's that."

And this was the fourth.

Upon catching the ball, Norwood should have been tackled by either of the two gunners who swarmed him even before it landed in his hands. Or he should have been quickly tracked down by four Panthers who arrived soon after.

However, the gunners backed away, apparently afraid that Norwood had called a fair catch and they missed it. Their hesitancy proved contagious, causing the other four defenders to slow up, too.

"Things happen so quickly in the NFL and in games on the field. That's just how it works," Norwood says. "As soon as one guy pulls up, you can make that decision in a quick second — Oh, I'm going to pull up, too. He must be right. He must have saw the fair catch. I didn't see it but he must have saw it. Those things kind of happen. So it doesn't really surprise me. I probably should have fair caught it."

Norwood did not hesitate, though. He sprinted around the Panthers' flank to the right sideline, turning the corner and striding toward the end zone — only to be caught 14 yards short of scoring the first touchdown on a punt return in Super Bowl history. Still, he set a new record for the longest punt return in the history of the championship game.

"As my mom said, Just run for your life," Norwood says. "So I just ran down the sideline. And Coach D. had kind of harped to us all week or those couple weeks leading up to the Super Bowl that nobody had ever scored a punt return for a touchdown in a Super Bowl. So that was kind of going through my head going down the sideline — Is this it? Am I going to get to the end zone? Obviously I came up short of the end zone but still got into a little bit of a record book there and set us up for a field goal, so I think it worked out."

The Broncos' offense may have been stymied in the red zone after Norwood's return, but Denver got a valuable three points out of it. After the opening drive, it was Denver's only first-half scoring drive; the other five first-half possessions included four three-and-outs and one interception.

"It's obviously not some record that anybody would think to look up, but it's cool," Norwood says. "It's something that I never thought I would be in the position to do that. I didn't return punts in college, I didn't return punts my first five, six years in the NFL. It wasn't something that I was always doing, other than in a kind of backup role. It's incredible the way you get thrown into situations and you kind of can even make your mark in a situation where you didn't expect to be in."

Norwood had made the most of his fragile moment, and in part, it helped the Broncos made the most of theirs, too.

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