Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Jan 2010

Stat of the Day: Best Punters of 2009

As part of our ongoing Stat of the Day series, we're digging deep into our spreadsheets to run a new stat every weekday until Super Bowl XLIV.

Today, we look at the best and worst punters according to the FO special teams ratings. While our special teams page gives only team stats, we also do individual special teams ratings. For punters, we measure gross punt value by analyzing the what the net value of every punt would be if the other team had a league-average return on that punt. A "league-average" return is based on the length of the punt and the yard line where it is caught. We don't have measures of hang time, and of course the net value of an unreturnable punt doesn't need to be adjusted for a "league-average" return. But this allows us to separate the value of punters from coverage teams without over-valuing punters who get high gross punting averages by kicking touchbacks that don't improve field position as much as shorter kicks downed inside the 20. We also adjust for weather and altitude... which, as you will see, ends up being particularly important in 2009.

Here's our list of the top punters of the year.

Punter Team Punt Pts+ Net Pts+
4-A.Lee SF 17.3 12.8
9-S.Lechler OAK 17.1 18.2
5-B.Graham ARI 14.9 10.7
9-J.Ryan SEA 11.3 -1.2
2-D.Colquitt KC 9.6 9.6
5-D.Jones STL 8.5 15.0
5-M.Scifres SD 7.8 1.4
2-B.Fields MIA 7.1 4.8
1-M.McBriar DAL 6.9 1.2
8-B.Moorman BUF 6.7 5.9

How did Andy Lee end up higher than Shane Lechler? There are two reasons. First, while Lechler had a much higher gross punt average and even a better net punt average, Lee was better at specifically keeping punts away from return men. 66 percent of Lechler's punts were returnable, 13 percent were touchbacks, and the other 21 percent were fair caught, downed, or landed out of bounds. By comparison, 58 percent of Lee's punts were returnable, 8 percent were touchbacks, and 34 percent were fair caught, downed, or landed out of bounds.

Second, we have a special weather adjustment in our special teams ratings for punts in San Francisco, because of the wind currents associated with that stadium. It's fully possible that this adjustment is a little too strong, and Lee didn't actually have a better season than Lechler. But he's still closer than people realize. Lee and Lechler both were elected to the Pro Bowl, a rare example of the Pro Bowl getting a position completely and totally correct.

Jon Ryan wins the "punter screwed by his coverage" award, as Seattle allowed ten different returns of 20 or more yards including two touchdowns.

By the way, if this table went to 11 (which is one higher) the next punter listed would have been Brett Kern, who inexplicably was scapegoated for Denver's terrible punt coverage unit, got cut, and signed with Tennessee to replace Reggie Hodges. Since Kern was cut when the Broncos were 6-0, he ended up with a 14-2 record this year, better than any team except Indianapolis.

Now, we'll flip things around and look at the worst punters of the year. If you read the wild card game previews, you know who is at number one.

Punter Team Punt Pts+ Net Pts+
7-J.Kapinos GB -11.8 -16.2
2-R.Hodges TEN/CLE -9.7 -1.6
6-C.Hanson NE -8.4 -6.0
3-A.Podlesh JAC -6.6 6.0
18-J.Feagles NYG -6.1 -4.8
2-N.Harris DET -5.7 -2.4
6-S.Rocca PHI -5.3 3.8
8-D.Johnson TB -4.5 0.3
9-M.Koenen ATL -3.2 -10.0
10-K.Huber CIN -3.0 -3.3

Jeff Feagles? Yes, Jeff Feagles. Sure, Feagles is good at the coffin corner punt when it is needed, but he's bad at changing field position when the Giants are on their own half of the field. His average punt this year went just 40.6 yards, worse than all regular punters except for Reggie Hodges and Chris Hanson.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 18 Jan 2010

24 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2010, 3:48pm by jimmyhoffasbody

Comments

1
by Carl (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:09pm

Hmm. I'm honestly surprised to see the Colts' Pat McAfee missing from the top-10 list. Seems like everything he boots is a massive-hang-time 55-yarder. I guess these stats don't account for the hang time, and perhaps he hits too many touchbacks? Maybe he also suffers from a lack of attempts; these look like counting stats, not rate stats.

7
by Vincent Verhei :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:42pm

They are counting stats, but McAfee is just 13th in gross average. And he only downed 21 punts inside the 20, with six touchbacks. Dallas' Mat McBriar and Arizona's Ben Graham had six touchbacks, combined -- and had 80 total punts downed inside the 20. And McAfee kicked in a dome.

2
by ammek :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:13pm

The Packers have had terrible punting ever since they let Craig Hentrich go. Of course they have hurt themselves by being impatient: they cut Jon Ryan two years ago after one awful game in Chicago, and he's the only punter since 2003 to have played more than one season for the Pack.

Fortunately, the last three seasons, Green Bay hasn't punted very much. But it's a running sore: next year's guy will be the eighth starter in eight years.

3
by MCS :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:18pm

Ron Wolf still considers hie refusal to pay Hentrich one of the worst moves of his career in Green Bay

4
by Packerpalooza (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:21pm

Craig did want a million dollars which at the time was deemed an astronomical salary for a punter. I believe that if the agent had presented it differently Wolf might have been persuaded but it was delivered as an ultimatum and Ron Wolf responds poorly in that setting. He told the guy to blank off.

5
by Led :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:29pm

Brett Kern just wins games.

6
by Led :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 3:34pm

Good move by the Jets to cut Reggie Hodges in the preseason and pick up Weatherford, who is decidedly mediocre. Mediocre is big upgrade over Hodges.

23
by Phil Osopher :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 11:36am

After Gardocki went down, who is a decent punter, having to watch Hodges boom his consistently bad 35 yard punts was quite a treat. Thankfully, we have Cribbers to go down and tackle the return men before they get all TD on our asses.

Almost sad that stats say someone was worse than Hodges. That guy must really feel happy to have an NFL job. Get some cash, drink some beers, knock up some skank, and insurance sales here we come.

8
by merlinofchaos :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 4:06pm

Since you brought up Kern in the article, I'm really curious where Berger ended up on the list.

9
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 4:12pm

There were really two guys worse than Chris Hanson? For real?

They must be mind boggling to watch.

13
by justanothersteve :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 6:55pm

You have never seen the mind-boggling awfulness of Jeremy Kapinos.

10
by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 4:45pm

Aaron:

1. Are you netting league-average return yards against fair-caught punts?

2. If so, does the league-average return yards include fair-caught punts?

Why would this matter? Fourth down from the opponents 45, punter kicks a very high punt that is fair caught at the 5 yard line. If the metric is 40 yards in the air less a league-average return, this looks like a really bad punt despite the punter having done his job perfectly.

11
by Aaron Schatz :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 4:54pm

No, fair caught punt is a non-returned punt. No "average return" is factored in. I treat it the same as a downed or out of bounds punt -- which isn't exactly true, but I'm not sure how else to do it without trying to judge hang time and what punts are and are not returnable.

20
by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 10:01pm

Thank you for the clarification. No matter what you do, "situational punting" is going to distort the results. C'est la vie. (Also, do you have a meaningful league average to apply to Lechler's punts? Is there a substantial pool of returns of 70-yard punts fielded on the x yard line?)

12
by Kal :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 5:22pm

Nice subtle spinal tap reference.

14
by Theo :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 7:26pm

:)

15
by scottyb (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 7:30pm

Any way we can see punters 11-20?

16
by Kevin from Seattle (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:01pm

Good to see Jon Ryan get some recognition, he was the only bright spot on the Seahawks this year, and I can say this with confidence because we got to see him a lot this year.

17
by Paul A (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 8:41pm

Amazing to me is that there is only 1 playoff punter on the good list, and 4 playoff punters on the bad list.

18
by Anonymou$ (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 9:35pm

McBriar, Scifres and Graham all were in the playoffs.

19
by Q (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 9:50pm

"Amazing to me is that there is only 1 playoff punter on the good list, and 4 playoff punters on the bad list."

Actually it sort of makes sense. The better your team is, especially the offense, the less value one gets from a great punter since they rarely take the field. On the other hand, having a grest punter is hugely important to teams like Oakland, St Louis, KC since they take the field so often

21
by Joe Smith (not verified) :: Mon, 01/18/2010 - 11:42pm

i disagree with their methodology. why should an unreturnable punt be worth more than a punt that's returned but has an overall higher net? would you rather have a 45-yard punt that's not returned or a 60-yard punt returned 5 yards?

also, to assign a league-average return on every punt, instead of using the actual return yardage, penalises the punter for good hang time and directional punting. that is, a punter's punts may be returned for low yardage not just because of his coverage team, but because he kicks away from returners, or he hangs the ball high. ray guy's kicks, for example, were returned for low yardage because he sacrificed distance in order to increase hang time, thereby lowering his punt average but at the same time decreasing the returner's ability to be effective.

in other words, the FO's methodology punishes punters for doing their job well.

22
by jimbohead :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 1:07am

well, if you feel strongly that punters should be rated by their special teams' actual performance, the net points are right there to look at, and we also have special teams ratings up on the statistics site. The issue is just that the game-charting project apparently doesn't cover hang time. Separating individual contributions from gross outcomes is a messy business, and it's never going to be perfect.

That said, it's not necessarily true that punting directionally or short for good hang time is punished in this system. That leads to non-returned punts, not all the time, but enough that it's rewarded.

Also, a 45 yard non-returnable punt could be worth more than a 60 yarder returned for 5 yards - though, we don't know that necessarily until Aaron tells us - because of how we're looking at risk. The 60 yarder was returned for 5, but as far as the punter's concerned, if the gunner misses the tackle, the returner makes a move, etc., all of a sudden it could be a 30 yard return where our intrepid punter tackles him. Or doesn't, and its a touchdown. Unlikely, sure, but still possible, since it is being returned.

24
by jimmyhoffasbody :: Tue, 01/19/2010 - 3:48pm

Jeff Feagles= most consistent giant over the past two seasons=(