Taking a Punt

Dan’s general distain for the only people who use their feet in the game of football is widely known, and let’s face it it’s a facet of the game that sometimes even TV skips or ignores. So, when Chris Jones ran for a first down and more in the 3rd quarter of the Cowboy’s week 8 win over the Eagles it posed a question that’s occurred to me on a few occasions. Would drafting better all-round players improve punting? Why aren’t punter’s better athletes? Better might not be the best word for this but given that all they’ve got to do is stand with a long snapper all day and lump it, you have to wonder how much time they put into throwing the ball, running with it and general other football moves.

Surely the punting aspect of the game would be greatly improved if every punter had the opportunity to take the play by the scruff of the neck and get some 1st downs? If every week there were a couple of teams running some clever fakes because they can rely on their punters to complete passes or run quickly enough to get to the first down marker.

There are no fat punters so as a group they obviously keep themselves in good condition, particularly if they need to take off for a fake, but as well as ensuring they keep an average over 40 yards, pinning inside the 20 and a 4 second hang time, why aren’t punters judged on more than those three base attributes? Let’s break this down quite simply here, punters are all much of a muchness, the difference between a good and a bad one is pretty marginal, so why don’t sign punters that are better footballers?

There are literally hundreds of punters coming out of the NCAA every year and given that punting is one of the more transferable skills from any level of the NCAA game why is it so hard to find ones that can do more, that can throw a decent pass or can tuck the ball away and run? Punters that can do more surely give you more options in a fake and therefore more options to keep a drive alive and while you can’t fake every punt in every game, or even once a week but if every few weeks your punter can throw a 15-yard corner route or get his head down and run for it those few yards that can provide a massive lift on the side-lines to your team and change the momentum of a game.

I had a little look at punter 40 times from either the combine or various pro days to see just how fast they are and the answer is a little surprising. Chris Jones is 4th fastest with a 40 time of 4.68 seconds but there’s only Seahawks punter Jon Ryan with a generally impressive time.

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Now call me a stickler but if I was a special teams co-ordinator and a head coach I would want every player on my roster to give me the best chance to win, so that must surely include punters that can change a game? Having a punter with 5.23 second 40 time gives you less chance of being able to fake a punt than someone with a 4.45 seconds 40 time. As the last line of defence on a punt return then logically speaking you want the fastest punter possible to save you those extra yards if it all breaks down.

Special team’s fakes can often change the game, creating morale boosts and shifting the momentum in your favour. Those players on the bottom third of the roster that often make up team’s special teams plays all get fired up, the side-lines get fired up and suddenly that dead drive is now alive again and your back within a gnats pube of getting back into the game, hope from hopelessness.

Every yard counts in the NFL, and most coaches would rather their punter got them every yard possible, and pinned teams inside the 20 but times have changed in the NFL. Defences are focused on turnovers more than ever; bend don’t break and win the turnover battle and you’ll come out on top more often than not. In a similar vein, I’d like to see special teams focus more on keeping drives moving and keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

There is an odd correlation here however, if you look at all the teams with slower punters, slower than 4.9 second 40 times, they are all the teams that have (or have had) traditionally strong defences. Upon looking for a maddingly long time at the numbers there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between 40 time and punting abilities, though there are better Gents better qualified than I to work out that. So maybe there’s something else to this punting business or maybe coaches just like certain punters for certain reasons.

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As you can see from this maddingly complicated graph based on the 2016 stats there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between speed and ability as a punter or return distance or average punt length so either coaches are missing a trick in adding a weapon to their arsenal or I’m missing something. Chances are that it’s me but there’s a lot of logic in drafting a punter that can do more, and I for one would like to see more of it.

The best way to improve punting in the game might be to draft punters who are better football players so we could get more fakes and tricks, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I’d like to say I’ve gained an appreciation for punters and punting through this exercise, I’d like to but I can’t, if anything they’re just a sea of numbers that are still as much of a muchness as when I started. Maybe punters who can throw are just rubbish college quarterbacks, or punters that can run are converted to wide receivers at high school. Whatever the reason punting is going to stay boring for quite some time.

 

With thanks to Paul Edge for this article. Show him some love on Twitter.