It’s a Punter’s World, and We’re Just Living In It
Twenty NFL teams have missed an extra point this season. All but two — the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts — have seen their kickers shank at least one field goal.
The part of the game that was previously an afterthought has become a regular exercise in nail biting. Some botched kicks are having immediate effects on the outcome of games, like in the New Orleans Saints’ unfortunate case:
No one watches the games solely to see the kickers, but in an exceptionally mediocre season the spotlight is shining bright — though, not necessarily on the right foot.
If placekickers are the NFL’s version of the MLB’s closer, then punters are the long relievers — a job so nondescript that you almost forget they’re on the team.
Both the punter and middle-relief pitchers make their entrance when the team is down and the fans are ready to change the channel. Just as deflating as a six-run deficit is, so too is a three-and-out. But punters are hell-bent to throw that stereotype out of the window this season.
Kicking has been the subject of immense controversy this year, but punting has stepped out of the shadows to become, well, exciting.
The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders duked it out in a primetime Week 9 matchup that gave Silver and Black the AFC West division lead, but that wasn’t the narrative that stuck out:
Raider’s punter Marquette King gets the ball to drop on the two-yard line with the same amount of effort needed for a 20-yard chip shot. King then gallops to the sideline in what was easily the best celebration a punter ever gave (read: no competition), and it was rightly deserved.
The Broncos went on to post a forgettable three-and-out, delivering the ball back to the Raiders in about a minute. If King had overshot or undershot his punt, the Broncos would have had more room to work with and may have stretched the drive.
I know what you’re thinking. “King punted inside the half-field marker, he’s just doing his job.”
Let’s look at the play of the game from the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets Week 10 game:
Were you really that surprised the best play of that game came from a punter?
The 78-yard rocket from Johnny Hekker caught Jalin Marshall so off guard that he had to backtrack from the Jets 35-yard line to the five before he made any forward movement. Even then, he only made it back to the 15-yard line.
In the only instance of the Jets doing anything remotely similar to what the Broncos have done this season, they then went three-and-out after gaining just two yards.
Had the Jets received that ball anywhere close to where Marshall initially lined up, it’s entirely likely they move into field goal range which, in a game that ended 9–6, could’ve flipped the script. Then again, Jets gonna Jet.
Hekker and King aren’t the only punters at the top of their game. Pat McAfee of the Colts and Thomas Morstead from the Saints are both averaging 50.8 yards per punt this season, good enough to tie for fourth in NFL history for a single season average, according to Pro Football Reference data.
In fact, besides Sammy Baugh who netted 51.4 yards per punt in 1940, 10 of the top 11 yards per punt averages in NFL history have all come after 2009. We’re seeing a punters’ renaissance in an era where high-profile offenses are supposed to move the ball forward with ease, not turn it over.
Throughout the past 10 years, just four teams have averaged more than 50 yards per punt — and never more than twice in one season. The Colts and Saints are both above that mark this season, with the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers not far behind with a 49.8 and 49.3 yards per punt average this season, respectively.
Teams are using their punters big boot to get out of tough situations and turn disappointing ones — like hitting fourth down a few yards away from field goal range — into missed opportunities you can stomach.
Having a weapon like this on your special teams unit can make decent defenses look like world beaters and all-star stoppers like they belong in the Hall of Fame. Bad punts are nothing short of glorified turnovers, and capitalizing on the field position of an interception or fumble is how great teams win games.
But the length the football travels isn’t the only aspect punters are improving on. When consistent, their ability to drop the ball near the endzone can freeze opponents instantly.
Just ask Bill O’Brien, who saw his Houston Texans get shutout 27–0 by the New England Patriots in Week 3. Ryan Allen placed the ball inside the Texans 15-yard line six out of 11 drives, and never let them begin a drive past their own 25-yard line all game. With Brock Osweiler behind center, those types of possession starts are bona fide death sentences.
The league at large has yet to consistently nail this routine, but the general skill of punters has improved to the point where special teams can be a tipping point in any closely contested matchup, and a flat-out trump card in uneven splits.
Of course, the games aren’t won or lost by punters. But they aren’t won or lost by middle-relievers either.
In all honesty, you never want to see either of these players on the field— it’s an omen of defeat. The team didn’t get the job done, and now some guy whose name you faintly recognize from a pregame program is on the big screen.
Punting isn’t the sexiest part of the game — I’ll give you that. But every great comeback starts with the punter doing his job, just like every great rally begins with a long reliever who stems the bleeding.
Without a stopgap, the NFL is no better than backyard football — or worse.
Punters add another dimension to the chess match, and there’s a reason why one of the game’s best coaches, Bill Belichick, puts so much effort into perfecting it.
This season in the NFL has looked more like “The Most Mediocre Show On Turf,” instead of the high-octane, fast-paced and score-heavy type of game the league wanted, but maybe we needed things to slow down a bit to see the people winning the game don’t have to throw, catch or run. Sometimes, they gallop.