As I cue up some Simple Minds somewhere on my ’80s-overloaded iPod, these thoughts …
To talk to Paul Ernster in the late hours Monday night following the Broncos’ 13-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens was to speak with a man uncertain of his professional future, but certain that his efforts had shown the best he could offer in his first extended work in the NFL.
He’d dropped three of four punts inside the Ravens’ 20-yard-line, effectively making Baltimore’s B.J. Sams a non-factor on punt returns. He’d gotten enough hang time under his kickoffs to limit the explosive Sams to just 18.7 yards per kickoff runback — some 14.4 yards below his average heading into the game.
“I’m going to sleep well tonight knowing that I gave it my best shot, that I did my best. If I didn’t have a good game, I probably wwould have been a little upset and bothered that I didn’t do my best. I did my best.
“I gave my all, everything I had and if it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.”
He knew he’d sleep well. But after he awoke, well …
“I probably won’t answer my phone (Tuesday),” he said.
Of course, the call Ernster dreaded never came. He successfully made it through cutdown day as a rookie, came through a second final cut this year and then Tuesday emerged from what amounted to a third potential cutdown with his place on the roster intact — and, by all indications, a chance to establish a long-term grip on the Broncos’ punting and kickoff duties.
Since his arrival, Ernster has been one of my favorite players to talk to. Engaging. Intelligent. Level-headed. Dry-witted. Always has time for a question or two from an inquisitive wretch like myself. And he knows something about designing Web sites, which doesn’t hurt.
But on the field is what matters, and that’s what made his efforts Monday so promising for him and the Broncos — especially since they represented the continuation of an upward move since Week 2 against Kansas City.
That day, he had a career-best 52.0 yards per punt — but watched all five of his punts be returned for an average of 14.4 yards per runback. The gross average was promising, but the threat of game-breaking returns from Dante Hall was distressing.
All that would change.
In the next two games, only four of his 12 punts were returned. Seven of the eight others were downed, went out of bounds or were fair-caught inside the opposing 20-yard-line.
But one must consider something else with Ernster — his relative lack of experience at punting. He didn’t take it up full-time at NAU until his senior season, but did so well (47.8-yard gross average) that he earned I-AA All-America honors.
Factor that in with a rookie season that for all intents and purposes lasted for one kickoff of one game and later saw a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and you still have a punter who is what he is becoming.
“I’m still kind of a rookie at heart,” Ernster said. “I’ve never really gone out and played a lot of games like this, so I’m just winging it as I go, just doing my best.”
And now, he knows he’ll have the chance to do his best in Denver.