KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Los Angeles Chargers punter JK Scott boomed the ball downfield, Mecole Hardman Jr. had already made up his mind.
Hardman, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and was re-acquired via trade with the New York Jets earlier this week, stepped right back in his role as the starting punt returner, but he’d yet to actually set fly.
Hardman also didn’t have a catch yet on offense and was itching to make a play when Scott rocketed his fifth and final punt 58 yards midway through the fourth quarter.
“Honestly, I was going to return it no matter what,” Hardman said. “I had my mind made up already. It was kind of a safe punt return. Usually, when we’re in safe [return], people tend to relax a little. But I definitely was going to take that one, and he gave me a great ball.”
Fifty yards later, Hardman had finally flipped the field position that Scott had helped the Chargers dominate in the second half.
Six plays later, Hardman’s big punt return also set up the only points for either team in the second half of Kansas City’s 31-17 victory Sunday at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Mecole is really smart; he’s an innately smart kid, so it wasn’t hard for him to jump in and pick up on some things we had in the game plan,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
Still, Reid was impressed with how quickly Hardman readjusted in his return to the Chiefs and found a way to impact the game after signing with the Jets in the offseason.
After all, Hardman spent the offseason, training camp and first six weeks of the regular season learning the Jets’ system.
While he obviously had some familiarity with Kansas City’s system, Hardman only rejoined the team on Thursday.
“That’s a tough thing,” Reid said.
Hardman said he didn’t have any nerves returning to his former team.
“Just more excitement, for real,” he said. “I was just happy to be back out here and back with these guys and excited to play again.”
Hardman, who now wears No. 12 after wearing No. 17 during his first four seasons with the Chiefs, confessed that he wanted to make a big play in his return.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes targeted twice in the first three quarters, taking the blame for misfiring on a first-quarter third-down pass, but Hardman had been unable to put his stamp on the game until the punt return.
“I was right on the sideline,” cornerback L'Jarius Sneed said. “I wanted to go on the field, but you can’t do that. It was big. His first game back, for him to do what he did today, he came out and played well.”
Mahomes said Hardman’s punt return “put the game away,” but the real dagger actually might have been on a subsequent drive.
Mahomes found Hardman for six yards and a first down on a key third down one play before the back-breaking touchdown to Isiah Pacheco with 3:30 remaining.
“Being able to bring him back and just enjoy his energy, he’s a loud one, but he’s energetic and it shows in his play,” fellow veteran wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling said. “He’s electric, and you saw that today.”