Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 12/1/11
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Cardinals special-teams coach Kevin Spencer was discussing the potential of rookie cornerback and punt returner Patrick Peterson on Wednesday when a player walking off the practice fields interjected with a clarification. "I don't know, Pat's 21 or 22 years old," Spencer began before the player interrupted. "I'm 21, coach," the player said, laughing. It was Peterson, of course, and the correction simply put more perspective on what the young star has already accomplished through 11 games as a professional. In his first NFL season, the awards are already piling up for Peterson. But amid it all, he's remained grounded and focused on improving. It started in Week 9, when Peterson was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week following his 99-yard punt return for a touchdown in overtime to give the Cardinals a win over the St. Louis Rams. Peterson earned the award again after recording another punt-return touchdown against the Rams last Sunday, the fourth time he did so this season. That tied the single-season NFL record and prompted the Pro Football Hall of Fame to claim the cleats he wore for the 99-yarder to put on permanent display in Canton. Finally, on Wednesday, Peterson was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for November. With so many accolades at once, it's easy to see how a player's head might expand just a bit, especially a rookie. Peterson, though, displays wisdom beyond his years with a perspective often lost on young athletes certain they're invincible. "I stay grounded because all this could be gone in the blink of an eye," Peterson said Wednesday. "I want to continue to be the best player that I can be. All the awards and all the recognition that I'm getting is great, but I just want to continue doing the things that got me here. That's being humble, staying grounded and surrounding myself with good people." Peterson arrived in Arizona this season with high expectations, drafted fifth overall out of LSU but regarded by many as the best player in the draft. Meeting those expectations hasn't been an issue so far, and Peterson got started early. With an 89-yard punt return in Week 1, Peterson broke a fourth-quarter tie and propelled the Cardinals to a win over the Carolina Panthers. Then, on Oct. 30, Peterson took a punt 82 yards to the house in an eventual loss to the Ravens. The next two such plays put him in company with Jack Christiansen (1951), Rick Upchurch (1976) and Devin Hester (2007) as the only players to return four punts for a touchdown in a season. But Peterson is the only player with four punt-return touchdowns of 80 yards or more. "Sometimes you're in an organization for five years and you don't have four punt returns for a touchdown," Spencer said. "I don't know if the whole thing has struck me yet, because we're just trying to win games, but he is truly a special kid in many ways." Spencer stopped short of making comparisons to Peterson's contemporaries, such as Hester, but detailed Peterson's rare skill set that starts with an exceptional catching ability. There's also Peterson's rapid decisiveness and the natural athleticism that often leaves opponents with no recourse but to avoid him at all costs. "Obviously, his cutting ability and his speed and his explosion you can see and figure out how to expose them, but he's really strong," Spencer said. "We always say Patrick will make the first guy miss and we'll block the other guys, but it's more like Patrick will make the first guy miss and run over three guys on the way. He really is a very unique combination of strength and speed." Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said it's common with great returners for the other special-teams players to be overlooked. But don't count Peterson among those who undervalue the efforts of the 10 other players on the field. Peterson said the high level of trust between him and the rest of the special-teams unit allows him to focus solely on what he can do to make impact plays each time out. "Those guys are definitely going to continue blocking their tails off, and I'm going to continue to if the opposing team gives me the opportunity make big yards and make good plays at the same time," Peterson said. Whisenhunt, Spencer and Peterson's teammates may have nothing but praise for Peterson as a returner, but his primary duties come on defense. Peterson is adjusting to playing cornerback in the pros, and Whisenhunt thinks he gets "picked on" on at times. Peterson still has improvements to make as a cornerback, Whisenhunt said, particularly in terms of technique, discipline and body positioning. Peterson has a great deal of athleticism, but Whisenhunt said that doesn't matter in the NFL the way it does in college, as more players are physically elite. "He's getting better," Whisenhunt said. "It's tough when you're a young player at that position and you're thrust into the starting lineup. It was a struggle early." Said Peterson: "I'm definitely working hard each and every week to be that shutdown corner. We know that's not going to happen overnight, but I believe we have a lot of great guys around me, helping me and aiming me in that direction." That Peterson recognizes his shortcomings and admits them openly further displays the level head that has him on track for more accolades. "You hope he can build upon it," Spencer said. "It's very special. What we want to do is just stay in the moment, and we'll worry about those things later on. He's got a great perspective on it." Even the most humble, even-keeled athletes, though, take a moment to boast on occasion. Before last week's game, Peterson playfully warned Rams punter Donnie Jones not to kick to him. Jones must not have heeded the warning, and it cost the Rams. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has been very clear about his team's intention to avoid kicking to Peterson this Sunday, but as Whisenhunt pointed out earlier this week, that's often easier said than done. "We'll see," Peterson said with a smile Wednesday. "If those guys give me the opportunity to field a punt, my goal is to definitely make them pay."
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