By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Gunner Olszewski was the story of the summer in Foxboro, a prototypical Bill Belichick creation. After excelling as a defensive back at Division II Bemidji State, Olszewski was identified by Belichick and his staff as a potential receiver/punt returner. Olszewski spent the majority of training camp and the preseason proving the coach right.
Alas, things can change in a hurry once the real games begin in the NFL, and the 22-year-old learned that on Sunday.
While standing deep in Patriots territory to field his eighth punt of the afternoon, Olszewski took his eyes off the ball, allowing the punt to bounce off his fingertips. Olszewski tried but failed to receover the bounding ball, helping to push it into the end zone, where the Jets recovered for a touchdown.
The Patriots won the game with ease, but that miscue cost the Patriots a shutout. (A Jarrett Stidham pick-six later doubled the damage.)
After the win, Olszewksi was rather hard on himself for the error.
“It is unacceptable,” Olszewski said. “There is no excuse for it.”
It helped, of course, that the flub came in the midst of a lopsided victory. And the rookie received encouraging words from his teammates, who knew he’d get another chance over the course of the final 15 minutes of the game.
“They told me I needed to pick my head up because there is more game to play and just don’t let it happen again,” said Olszewski, who ended up returning one punt for 11 yards in the fourth quarter.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater — who made a marvelous play to help down a punt on the 1-yard line — was of course one of those voices.
“Keep his head up, we all support him,” Slater said of his message to Olszewski. “We know what type of kid he is and everyone in this locker room has a lot of faith and confidence in him. Those kinds of mistakes happen. No one knows more about muffing balls and returns than I do, so stay positive. We support him.”
People might remember that a year ago, Riley McCarron mishandled a punt during the season opener against Houston, a mistake which gave the Texans a free possession that led to a touchdown to cut the Patriots’ lead to seven points late in the fourth quarter. McCarron was cut by the team the following day, and he’s yet to play another down in the NFL.
Based on the fact that Olszewski not only got another chance to return a punt but also remained active in the offense, it looks as though the undrafted rookie will not suffer the same fate this time around. The toughness he showed on his other punt returns, when he absorbed what seemed like 10 hits each time, should serve him well going forward.
“You have to go back out there and do your job,” Olszewski said. “They put me back there because they trust me and I just want to show them that they can trust me in any situation, not just when I am returning. I want them to know I can catch the ball.”