It's been a while since the Washington Commanders got an explosive play from a punt return.
The last time it happened was during the 2016 season against the Baltimore Ravens. Jamison Crowder, a fourth-round pick by Washington in 2015, secured the punt at the 15-yard line and moved to his left before turning up the field and sprinting through the Ravens' special teams unit. He shrugged off a tackle near the 50-yard line before finishing the return in the end zone to tie the score 7-7.
It may have taken eight years, plus a few stints with two other teams, but Crowder is back to making an impact for the team that drafted him.
Crowder was signed in the offseason as a backup plan for the Commanders if one of their return specialists went down. On Sunday during the Commanders' 24-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons, he provided one of the most exciting plays of the day in the form of a 61-yard punt return. Not only did it lead to a touchdown three plays later, but it also played a crucial role in swinging momentum back in Washington's favor.
"It was huge," said head coach Ron Rivera. "It gives you a little bit of a spark, and the spark can come from anywhere."
Crowder rejoined the Commanders in September when he was signed to the team's practice squad. He had spent the last four seasons with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, but the best stretch of his career was with Washington, when he caught 221 passes for 2,628 yards and 14 touchdowns from 2015-18.
Originally, it seemed that Crowder would only be used in emergency situations, but after Dax Milne, the Commanders' primary punt returner, was placed on Injured Reserve, the team signed him to the active roster and gave him the role.
Crowder's numbers to start his ninth season were not much to look at, but over the last three weeks, he's started to pick up some traction. He had a 14-yard return against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, which moved Washington from its own 12 to the 26-yard line. Four days later, he had a 20-yard return that put the offense at the 30-yard line.
Then came Crowder's only punt return against the Falcons, which stands as the second longest of his career. After going down 7-3, Washington's defense managed to force a three-and-out to start the second quarter. Bradley Pinion sent the ball flying 43 yards downfield, where Crowder was waiting for it at the Commanders' 28-yard line.
Crowder has two priorities when returning a punt: first, he simply wants to make sure he secures the ball. Then, he makes sure to get his eyes down quickly to see what's in front of him.
"I caught it and looked, there was a runway to my right," Crowder said. "I was able to hit that and get back to my left."
From there, Crowder weaved through a pair of Falcons players near the 40-yard line. He broke loose near the 50, leaving only Pinion left to prevent him from getting any farther. Crowder shrugged off an arm tackle from the punter and ran another 17 yards before being caught from behind at the Falcons' 11-yard line.
Crowder said there was some congratulations, plus some playful teasing from his teammates, waiting for him when he got to the sideline.
"Shoot, I'm still hurting myself, man. Like I said, I gotta get in the end zone. But guys were definitely energized and enthused by that."
All joking aside, Crowder's teammates knew how important the play was for them.
"I told him after the game that it was one of the big plays to help us win the ball game," Sam Howell said after the game. "That was huge. Whenever you can get sparks from defense or special teams, it definitely helps the offense, especially against a defense like Atlanta."
The Commanders' offense was able to take over from there. Plays from Curtis Samuel and Brian Robinson Jr. got the ball down to the 1-yard line, and Antonio Gibson finished things off with a wide-open reception in the end zone. That put the Commanders up 10-7, and the team never relinquished the lead from that point on.
Putting his team in position to get more points on the board is exactly what Crowder hopes he can do with his skill set.
"Every time I go out there, I'm aware that being out there on special teams can impact the game in a huge way," Crowder said.
He was also glad the offense managed to take advantage of the short field.
"It's always a sigh of relief when we can score," he said.
Crowder's return put him over the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in his career. He's also averaging 14.3 yards per return, which is a personal best for the wideout.
Crowder has yet to score a touchdown on a punt return since that Ravens game in 2016. After coming so close on Sunday, he's determined to get another.
"Next time, we're getting in the end zone for sure," Crowder said.