Dreamy stuff: Nyheim Hines’ record-breaking returns spark Colts’ romp

Colts

Marlon Mack #25 and Nyheim Hines #21 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a touchdown in the game against the Carolina Panthers during the second quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Even in those quiet times when Nyheim Hines’ mind wandered to those ridiculously-spectacular places visited by ultra-talented but naïve youngsters, it never imagined this.

Not returning the sixth punt return of his career 84 yards for a touchdown.

Not returning the seventh 71 yards for another touchdown.

Not becoming the first returner in Colts history – that covers two cities and 56 seasons – and just the 14th in NFL history to take two punts to the house in the same game. He’s just the fifth with a pair of 70-plus TDs in a game.

Not setting a franchise record with 195 punt return yards and piling up the fourth-most yards in NFL history. Hines didn’t just break one of the Colts’ longest-standing records, he obliterated it. Carl Taseff’s record of 148 had stood since 1956.

In a game that saw the Colts temporarily ease the pain of a disappointing season with a 38-6 demolition of the Carolina Panthers and Marlon Mack eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing plateau Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the spotlight shined brightest on Nyheim Hines.

“Surreal,’’ he called it.

It would have been the stuff of dreams, but Hines admitted he never – ever – could reach such heights in his dreams.

“I’ve had dreams where I’ve played well and I don’t think I even had a day like that in dreams,’’ he said.

It was beyond dreamlike.

In fact, the idea of Hines being a factor in the return game was laughable 16 months ago. When the Colts looked to tap into his speed and play-making potential as a rookie, he, well, fumbled it away.

In the 2018 preseason opener at Seattle, Hines muffed a pair of punts. In the second game against Baltimore, he mishandled a kickoff that was recovered by the Ravens.

It took him out of the return mix. It tested his resolve. It forced the outgoing Hines to avoid social media.

“I actually got off social media because people were commenting on my ball security and stuff. I was a little bit down,’’ he said. “I really didn’t have the confidence I needed to have.’’

That confidence was regained day-by-day, practice-by-practice. Hines credited assistant special teams coach Frank Ross for sticking with him, working with him on punt returns, looking past the early struggles.

Hines was appreciative of Frank Reich and special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone for having “100 percent confidence in me.’’ He was especially grateful for Ross’ support.

“Honestly, Frankie Ross is the most important,’’ Hines said. “After the (2018) preseason, he had me catch punts every day. Some days I wanted to go in and he’d say, ‘You’re going to be a returner sometime in our career.’

“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be a returner or be where I am today.’’

When Hines’ struggled last preseason, the Colts turned to Chester Rogers. He was their primary punt returner until suffering a season-ending knee injury Dec. 1 against Tennessee.

“We always knew Nyheim was our backup guy,’’ Reich said, adding Hines addressed his rookie travails in the locker room after owner Jim Irsay presented him with the game ball.

“Nyheim just said it there in the locker room,’’ Reich said. “Gave a speech, said, ‘Hey, I was struggling last year at the beginning. When I got in here I did not handle that responsibility very well in the preseason.’

“He worked his tail off to overcome that.’’

Hines smiled when he considered where he was, and where he is.

“Maybe it was great I had to wait a whole year to get another opportunity,’’ he said. “The whole time I was just building confidence.’’

It’s hard to remember Hines has been the Colts’ punt returner for three-plus games. His stat line: seven returns, 261 yards (37.3 average), two TDs.

The Colts had had two punts returned for TDs in the last 13 seasons. T.Y. Hilton’s 75-yarder against Buffalo in 2012 was the most recent.

Again, not bad for a 2018 fourth-round draft pick who had serious ball security issues not that long ago.

“It’s hard to imagine,’’ Hines said. “Even in my prayer every Sunday, I say, ‘Lord, without you, I’d have a preseason like I had last year. With you, I can do all things and score touchdowns.’

“I literally say that every prayer.’’

Hines’ first TD was compliments of a do-over when offsetting penalties resulted in another Michael Palardy punt. He squirted through a seam on the left side, received a sealing block by Jonathan Williams and juked Palardy at the Carolina 35. He raced to the end zone and into the northwest tunnel.

“If I get to the kicker . . . that’s not me. That’s the other guys,’’ Hines said. “Any returner in the NFL, if they can get to the kicker, they should take it to the house.’’

However, Palardy helped foil Hines’ first return of the day – a career-long 40 yarder that he twice surpassed – when he slowed him up.

“I tried too hard to make him miss,’’ Hines said. “I was kicking myself about that.’’

There wasn’t anything wrong with Hines’ third return. He initially benefited from solid blocking, bounced to the right and took off. His escort to the end zone included Luke Rhodes, Clayton Geathers and Ashton Dulin.

“It was everybody doing their job,’’ Jonathan Williams said. “And Nyheim has a good feel for it. He’s breaking tackles and he has that running back mentality.

“I was just following him. Whenever he broke it, I’m just trying to clean up anybody that’s around. I know once he gets going it’s going to be over with.’’

Prior to the game, Hines’ mind again was busy. It was time, he thought, to break loose. Prior to Sunday and excluding kickoffs, his longest plays were a 28-yard reception against the New York Giants last season and an 8-yard run against Houston in mid-November.

“Before today, I don’t think I had a 30-yard play since I’ve been here,’’ he said. “I was like, ‘I need to get a 50-yard play or do something explosive to show I’m a 4-3 (speed) guy.’ Lord blessed me with that.’’

Just like that, 40 yard punt return. And 84-yard punt return. And 71-yard punt return.

“Dangerous return man,’’ Carolina interim coach Perry Fewell said. “We didn’t get population to the ball.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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