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.