"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
13 Dec 2003
by Michael David Smith
When Tom Brady lined up in the shotgun on 4th-and-10 on the Miami 37 with 4:53 remaining last weekend, he made one of the great plays of the day not with his arm but with his leg. Instead of passing, he punted, pinning Miami at its one-yard line and effectively ending any hopes the Dolphins had of mounting a comeback.
But what's most interesting about the play is that the Patriots had just cut their punter, Ken Walter, who was one of the best in the league at doing exactly what the Patriots wanted Brady to do: getting the ball inside the 20 without letting it roll into the end zone.
The Patriots released Walter after he averaged only 27.3 yards on his three kicks the previous week against Indianapolis. As Aaron wrote before the Patriots-Dolphins game, "The Patriots also had a horrible punter. Had, because Ken Walter got cut this week. Hallelujah. According to my calculations, Walter's punts lost the Patriots 22.4 points worth of field position this year. No other team was above 16 points. However, the Pats are only listed as losing 6.6 points worth of field position on punts, because their punt coverage teams did a good job of preventing returns on all those crappy punts."
I'll acknowledge that Walter's performance this year was the worst of his career, but I disagree with the suggestion that he was saved by superior punt coverage. (I realize that picking a fight with Aaron about the Patriots is like arguing with Suetonius about the Roman Empire.) The Pats didn't do a good job preventing returns on "crappy" punts. Walter did a good job of putting his coverage unit in position to make tackles.
In fact, I'd argue that the most important job for a punter is putting the ball in a position where it's difficult to return, without kicking it into the end zone. A touchback is the accomplishment of the undisciplined punter; killing a punt inside the 20 is the accomplishment of the skillful punter. Walter is coming off a five-year stretch, from 1998 to 2002, during which he was the best in the league at pinning his opponents deep in their own territory.
Official statistics for hang time are not recorded, but I'd wager that Walter would consistently rank among the best in the league. He booms his punts into the stratosphere, giving his teammates plenty of time to run down in coverage. That's why the Patriots rarely give up long returns.
No part of football is more misunderstood than the punting game. For that the NFL itself deserves a lot of the blame, because the league ranks its punters based on gross average instead of net average. Obviously, if Brady's punt against Miami had rolled another yard, it would have been much less effective; any time a team punts on its opponent's side of the field, the object is to pin the opponent deep in its own territory But if a punter in the situation Brady was in wanted to lead the league, he'd be better off kicking into the end zone than kicking to the 1-yard line, even though it would cost his team 19 yards of field position. (It's no surprise, incidentally, that Brady was effective with the pooch punt. All recent Michigan quarterbacks have spent hours practicing it because it's one of Lloyd Carr's favorite plays.)
The television announcers don't help the fans' understanding of the punting game with their idiotic declarations of "Oh, what a great kick," or "He shanked that one off the side of his foot." The announcers make those comments while the punt is still in the air, not realizing that it's impossible to judge a punt before seeing where it lands. You'd think ESPN's Paul Maguire, who twice led the AFL in punting, would shed some light on the subject, but he's as bad as any of them. During the Carolina-Atlanta game, Todd Sauerbrun nailed a beauty, a 43-yarder out of bounds at the Atlanta 11-yard line, but Maguire criticized the punt as soon as it left Sauerbrun's foot. I guess aesthetics are more important to Maguire than actually winning football games.
Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn addressed the issue of gross average versus net average in their book, The Hidden Game of Football:
"The NFL still awards its individual punting championship to the kicker with the highest gross average; that is, divide the total distance he kicked by his number of punts... However, a lot of people think the net average is a better gauge of a punter's ability. Include us with 'a lot of people.' A punter's net average is figured by starting with his gross yardage, subtracting 20 yards for each touchback and subtracting the return yardage. Then that number is divided by the total number of punts...
"The NFL publishes the net average, but doesn't use it to choose its punt leader. The argument is that the punter shouldn't be made responsible if his team has lead-footed punt coverage... We're not sure why he's not held responsible for the touchbacks; maybe punters have a strong union... Recognize the fact that a good punter adjusts to his coverage just as he adjusts to poor snaps, leaky protection, high winds, cold hands and warm hearts. We say rank the punters by net average."
Another person who says punters are best ranked by net average is Brad Seely, the Patriots' special teams coach. Seely was Walter's special teams coach with the Panthers in 1997 and 1998, and he was instrumental in bringing Walter from the Panthers to the Patriots in 2001. And although the Patriots were frustrated by Walter's short kicks two weeks ago, Seely got his man back soon enough: After that Miami game, the Patriots re-signed Walter to punt for them in their playoff run. I'll wager that the Patriots don't allow any punt return touchdowns the rest of the year.
(Aaron notes: Two things. First, it's widely acknowledged that Walter was brought back because he was Adam Vinatieri's holder on field goals, and with Lonnie Paxton out for the year the team wanted to give the slumping Vinatieri something to put him back into a comfort zone. Second, the punting measures used to compute special teams VOA ratings count touchbacks the same as punts that are caught at the 20-yard line with no return. Like Mike, I don't believe in giving punters credit for long punts that end up giving the receiving team the ball on the 20-yard line anyway. But the system doesn't split the responsibility for the return between the coverage team and the punter's ability to kick a difficult-to-return punt, which is the crux of Mike's argument here. I hereby promise the long-awaited special teams article will appear during my company's Xmas hiatus.)