In all of my time working at Pro Football Focus, I don’t think we have had an article devoted specifically to punters. That ends today and so does the Stat Sheet Misconceptions series as we examine punting yards per attempt. Outside of Brian Moorman, Shane Lechler, and whoever the punter on your favorite team is, I’m guessing the average fan can’t name many more current NFL punters.
While you might think punters aren’t important, a poor decision by New York Giants’ rookie punter Matt Dodge in Week 15 allowed DeSean Jackson to return a punt for a touchdown … a single play that led the Eagles to the playoffs, helped the Packers get in, and helped eliminate the Giants. Without that play, the Packers very likely would not have made the playoffs and we would have a different Super Bowl champion right now.
When we look at “skill” players, one of the best statistics out there that can be easily calculated is taking their yards and dividing it by their attempts. If we do this for punters, however, it leads to a big issue.
The Logical Problem
When a running back runs with the ball, his goal is typically to get as many yards as he can. In almost every case, it is better to gain an additional yard versus not. There are exceptions when time is a factor, going out of bounds early to stop the clock may be what your team needs, or yardage may be passed up to ensure getting tackled in bounds to keep the clock rolling. In the majority of cases, though, time isn’t an issue, so it doesn’t play a major role in their yards per attempt. A similar logic can apply to a quarterback’s yards per attempt, or a receivers yards per pass route run.
For a punter, getting more yards isn’t always the best case. When an offense stalls at their opponent’s 40 yard line and decides to punt, a 39-yard effort is significantly better than a 40 yarder. In fact, a 21-yard punt is slightly better than a 40 yard punt in this situation as the touchback’s 20-yard mark provides the boundary of a target zone.
Because the goal at times is to punt the ball as long as a punter can, and other times it is to pin the other team somewhere within their 20 yard line, it doesn’t make sense to add up the results of both of these situations and divide by the number of punts. Unfortunately, this is how it’s done, and is probably the most prevalent statistic used when it comes to punters.
Who it helps, Who it hurts
This problem with punting yards per attempt typically makes the punters on bad teams look good, and the punters on good teams look bad. Speaking in broad terms, if a punter is on one of the better teams in the league, their offense is likely to work into better field position more often, leading to punts aimed at pinning a team inside the 20 rather than letting loose to punt the ball as far possible. Bad teams, on the other hand, get stuck with bad field position, and then are more often in the situation to play “bombs away” with their punts.
Not only this, but punters on better teams just punt the ball less often – in general, they score more often, and therefore have fewer drives that end in punts. This skews punt totals and punt yardage totals towards the punters on lesser teams.
While we can look at other measures to figure out how good a punter is, it looks like the NFL dominantly uses this skewed stat. Of the 14 punters selected to the Pro Bowl in the past seven years, only three came from playoff teams. Those three are Jeff Feagles in 2008, Mat McBriar in 2006 and Josh Bidwell in 2005. Punters rarely get recognized, and the Pro Bowl is one of the very few opportunities they have to be shown off. If a good punter is on a good team and therefore limited by his situation, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll get recognized even if he’s one of the best at what he does. This is an injustice to those punters.
One example of this is Steve Weatherford of the New York Jets. He was 23rd in the league with 42.4 yards per punt in 2010 but he was PFF’s No. 5 rated punter with a +13.4 overall grade. He led the league by pinning the opponent within the 20 yard line 42 times. That was half of his 84 punts, a percentage that also led the league.
What Numbers to look at
There are a pile of punter-related numbers we keep track of at PFF. Along with attempts, yards and average, we log the maximum hang time, percent of punts returned, punts blocked, punts touched back, punts out of bounds, punts that were downed, punts that were fair caught, punts that are returned, punt return yardage of the returners, punts inside the 20 yard line, and net punt yardage.
Each of those numbers is also dependent on the situation or takes into account things out of the punters control. In my opinion, the best of those is punts inside the 20, but that hurts the punters on bad teams, so taking multiple numbers into account is best. The PFF rating takes into account the situation, and is the best measure we have to keep track of punters.
While the number of statistics we have can give people a better idea of how good a punter is, unfortunately historically we can’t do this. The only numbers typically kept are punts, yards, and punts blocked. If these numbers were available for past years, then maybe we would know exactly how good someone like Ray Guy was.
This concludes the ten piece series on stat sheet misconceptions. While punters might not be the most interesting position, it reminds us that for any statistic it’s important to look at what it’s actually measuring as opposed to what we would like it to measure. For almost every number there are situations beyond the player’s ability that can sway it and these outside factors are often ignored.
There is a saying about the three kinds of lies, and one of them is statistics. It is very easy to get misled by statistics in sports, but as long as the numbers are used to say what they are intended to say and you know their limitations, then it can lead to a more intelligent discussion about players and teams.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke