‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’ is a weekly column divised by yours truly, Greg Forbes. It’s aims are to provide in-depth analysis of all special teams play, career retrospectives, player interviews and knowledge on the latest in the world of the unit itself.
With the majority of the articles collected in this weekly episodic series I have been curating, many of the pieces have centred themselves around the athletes who make special teams great. We’ve covered the electric careers of Pat McAfee and Marquette King, as well as speed demons like Steve Tasker and Devin Hester. Furthermore, we’ve even had some cool alternative stories documented, like that of Mike Vanderjagt or Bob Timberlake.
That said, I have yet to truly outline my favourite positions, so let’s do that now. What better way to start than with punting? Because punters are people too, right Rich Eisen?
The Traditional Punt
End-Over-End Punt: This style of punt is generally recognised as the most widely used in the modern era of the NFL. The end-over-end kick resembles that of a rugby kick, which is where many believe it to have originated. Most credit Australian punter Darren Bennett for bringing this style across back in 1994. He, of course, had a storied NFL career, where he was a 2x All-Pro, and member of the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.
This kick is only successful if the punter positions the nose of the ball downwards and kicks the bottom of the ball, so that it spins back toward the kicking team. The position of the kick results in an increased hang time, which allows the coverage team to get down the field to prevent a lengthy return. Because of the backwards spin that is created by this style of punt, the kick rarely exceeds 40/50 yards in length. That said, when utilised correctly it is the most successful in gaining favourable field position for the punting team’s defence.
The Fun Punt
Pooch Punt: So, we all know that punts generally take place on fourth down, right? Well, my second favourite punt is the pooch punt. In this style of punt, the standard gridiron formation will be adopted, usually on a third-down which is so large that the chances of gaining the first-down are so slim it’s not worth attempting.
The offence will line up as standard, as will the defence. However, the pooch punt is effective because the defensive side will be expecting their opposing quarterback to make an offensive play, and not to punt the ball back. This means that they will likely be unprepared to return the football, which would work in the offence’s favour as they will win the positional battle on the football field by forcing their opposition into a worse starting position. These NFL rarities hardly ever occur, but some QB’s have actually tried it. Most recently Ben Roethlisberger.
Another notable figure to adopt the pooch punt was the 4x Pro Bowler Randall Cunningham. In-fact, he was so prone to punting the ball that he concluded his 16-year NFL career with 20 punts for a total of 894 yards, whilst he boasted a long punt of 91 yards. A truly phenomenal statistic to say the least.
The Innovative Punt
Knuckleball: The knuckleball is an exceptionally great concept. It involves the punter kicking the ball in the same motion as an end-over-end punt, however, the ball is positioned at a slight angle. Once the foot makes contact with the ball it flies turbulently throughout the air, which forces the returner into making a decision regarding whether they should risk returning the ball and potentially fumbling, or letting it drop and roll to the 5-yard line before the ball is downed.
Sam Koch, a 1x Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion, is one of the true artists to adopt this punt. In-fact, since he began changing up his punting preference, Koch has increased his net punt average by three yards. Which, is pretty amazing to say the least.
The Risky Punt
Fake Punt: What’s the riskiest punt of all punts? That’d be not punting at all.
As a traditional special teams fan, there’s nothing better than seeing a beautiful knuckleball bounce it’s way off of the playing field at the 1-yard line. Alternatively however, there’s also something really special about fake punts.
These punts feature a punting formation gearing up to kick the ball back to their opposition, however, instead of completing the punt they opt to attempt to get the first down instead. This can be done in a variety of ways; like throwing the ball, or running the ball to gain the first.
The fake punt is an incredibly dangerous play to convert. More often than not it will fail and the utiliser of this play will often look stupid. That said, when it works, by god is it beautiful.
NFL Punting Records
Punts/Punt Yardage/Inside The 20: Jeff Feagles, who had an illustrious 22-year NFL career which spanned across 5 franchises, holds the record for most punt yards (71,211) and most punts attempted (1,713). In addition, he also holds the record for most punts downed inside the 20 (508).
Longest Punt: Steve O’Neal boasts the record for the longest punt ever recorded at 98 yards.
Highest Draft Pick: Ray Guy was selected 23rd overall in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft, making him the highest drafted punter ever, a record that still stands today. Of course, we all know the Oakland Raiders did not regret that decision, as Guy became a 7x Pro Bowler, 6x All-Pro and 3x Super Bowl Champion, before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yards Per Punt: Across a distinguished 17-year NFL career, Shane Lechler’s 47.6 yards per punt average rests atop the yards per punt leaderboard in NFL history.
Punting, just like special teams as a whole, is an ever-improving position. The demand for theses specialists are constantly on the increase, as evidenced by the selection of four prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft. It seems that improvements are made year upon year, with each new athlete appearing to be more physically gifted than the last.
Take Mitch Wishnowsky for example, who’s unbelievably powerful leg and solid accuracy resulted in him being selected in the fourth round of the Draft just a week ago today by the San Francisco 49ers.
With the influx of imaginative footballing minds like that of Sam Koch, the future of punting is bright. Which, for me, is amazing because it means the art of the punt will live on forever.
Credits: nfl.com, sports-reference.com, Wikipedia.com, YouTube, nytimes.com.