Fortunately for the New York Jets, Justin Miller didn't comply with Leon Washington's demand late in the fourth quarter.
When Miller dug his heels into his own end zone on a Martin Gramatica kickoff, it was Washington - deep for the return as well - who signaled the second-year defensive back to take a knee for a touchback. Miller disregarded the rookie's request and it paid off. The dividends were six points for the home team and a four-point lead with just 2:20 remaining.
"My return team was ready for me to come out," said Miller, who admits that he didn't see Washington calling for him to kneel. "They went out and blocked, put everything on the line, and that is all I can ask of them."
Although Washington spent four years at Florida State returning kickoffs and has been an invaluable spark for the Jets in both the run game and on special teams, Miller has put his knowledge into action with regards to the NFL return game. In his rookie year last season, Miller set Jets records for total kickoff returns (60) and kickoff return yards (1,577) in a season.
The phenomenal Miller return wasn't impressive just because it was the longest in franchise history, but because of the timing. Just moments before, Miller committed a costly pass interference penalty on Indy receiver Reggie Wayne. On a 2nd and 20 from the Jets' 30, Peyton Manning launched a grab ball for Wayne with Miller closely guarding. After mutual contact and an incompletion, the yellow flag flung, turning a potential 3rd and 20 into a 1st and goal from the Jets' eight. Three plays later, Manning hit tight end Bryan Fletcher to put the undefeated Colts up 24-21 with just 2:34 to go in the game.
"That play was behind me right after they made that call," Miller said.
While that Colts drive seemed to also be the final nail in the coffin, Miller didn't give up and completely revived himself. The touchdown trail he took was right through the gut of the coverage which included an evaded tackle from Indy's Ryan LaCasse, a 257-pound rookie defensive end from Syracuse.
By breaking out of LaCasse's grasp and away from Gramatica's reach, Miller had nothing but green turf between himself and the end zone. The most contact he endured in that play came from his own team mobbing him in celebratory fashion – most notably, Washington.
"We had two people who had a chance to tackle him," said Colts head coach Tony Dungy. "Our kicker - which you never want to see that happen - and Ryan LaCasse had a chance to tackle him, but Miller came through the wedge clean and you can't have that happen."
"I have to credit my return team. We worked on that all offseason and all preseason," said Miller, who also led the defense in solo tackles with nine. "We worked on just making a block. It doesn't have to be a great block – just get in the way. That's what I have asked them for all year and we went out and did that today."
Miller fell just three yards short of the NFL record for longest kickoff return. Three former NFL players scored on kick returns of 106 yards and eight more players are tied for second place, running 105 yard returns.