Punt Game: Sportsballing Really Hard With Your Foot
– A guest submission by former NFL punter, Chris Kluwe.
Editor’s note: Chris shared some of his knowledge of all things punting with PFF in the past and many of his suggestions were incorporated into PFF’s punter grading system as we strove to be more accurate and all-encompassing in our methods. To check out the full table of punter grades showing the results of this kind of methodology in our Premium stats section, click here …or if you aren’t a subscriber yet, click here to sign up.
Most people don’t care about punting. It’s okay to admit it, you won’t hurt my feelings. It’s a highly specialized motion that only happens a few times during a game, and there’s always this sense of shame and failure when your team has to punt. “Gah, we couldn’t sustain a drive again, here comes that stupid punter. Anyone know where the bathroom/beers are at? Flip it over to Red Zone, see if someone’s about to score.”
There’s also a distinct lack of explanation about punting from the “experts.” TV analysts certainly don’t know what constitutes a good or bad punt, at least in terms of details they can relate to the viewing public. You’ll hear them talk about “outkicking his coverage,” or “he shanked that one,” but they don’t tell you why (mainly because they don’t know why).
The vast majority of coaches don’t know the intricacies of punting either – this I can tell you from personal experience. They want results, and they have a vague idea that punters should be able to get those results, but again – they don’t know the why. They just know that some punts are good, and others are bad, and they want more good punts than bad punts, but what constitutes the difference between a good punt and a bad punt can vary widely.
Most pertinently to those reading this piece, however, is that fans don’t know what constitutes a good or bad punt, so they go off the numbers the NFL keeps track of. “Surely,” the reasoning goes, “if this guy is ahead of all those other guys in numbers the league tracks, he’s a better punter, right?”
Maybe. Maybe not. But, that’s what we’re going to cover, so now you’ll know the why!
(You may not care, but at least you’ll know.)
Which Numbers Matter?
Right now, the NFL keeps track of five major stats for punting. These are:
1) Gross average – The distance the ball travels past the line of scrimmage until it is first touched by a returner or downed.
2) Net average – The distance the ball traveled for gross average MINUS the distance a returner returned it (note that net average, in some rare cases, can be higher than gross if the returner gets tackled for a loss. Most times, the net will be less than gross.)
3) Punts inside the 20 – This is a punt that is downed inside the 20, whether by the returner being tackled, or the punting team getting to the ball before it goes into the endzone. Punts inside the 20 are good.
4) Touchbacks – Touchbacks are when the ball goes into the endzone. For the most part, touchbacks are bad.
5) Punts out of bounds – Pretty self explanatory. The punt went out of bounds. These are either really good and tough to do, if the punter hit the ball the way he wanted to and prevented a return, or REALLY bad, if he shanked it off the side of his foot and it killed some poor child in the fifth row. Unfortunately, the way the NFL tracks it, you just don’t know. All you get is that the ball went out of bounds at some point.
So the problem with these stat categories, is that they don’t tell the whole story. A 54-yard net punt can be a horrible punt that the punter got a lucky bounce on, and a negative-30-yard net punt that went back for a touchdown can be a complete breakdown on the coverage team after a perfectly executed kick. As it stands, the NFL doesn’t publicly provide information that can reliably tell you whether or not a punt was good or bad. You get the what, but you don’t get the why.
So, which stats matter, then? How do we figure out the why?
I’m so glad you asked! Here are the stats that allow you to figure out exactly how good or bad a punt was, based solely off what the punter can influence, and you can track them fairly easily by yourself.
1) Distance – We need to know how far the ball went. Duh. However, we only count how far the ball goes in the air. Bounces are not something the punter can influence, and need to be tossed out. Our distance is from the line of scrimmage to where the ball first hits the ground or is caught by the returner.
2) Hangtime – We need to know how long the ball was in the air. Higher hangtime equals more time for your coverage team to get down the field and cover the ball, thus negating the chances of a return. A good rule of thumb is a 45-yard punt should have around 4.5 seconds of hangtime, and for every yard after that up to 50 you should add roughly another tenth of a second. Anything over five seconds of hangtime means you crushed the ball, and you’ve given your coverage unit an excellent chance at covering the returner. Again, track this from the instant the ball is kicked to when it hits the ground/is caught by the returner.
3) Location the ball was caught/landed – We need to know where on the field the ball initially comes down, so we can gauge the accuracy of the punter in terms of directional punting. Spraying it down the middle of the field is much easier to do than aiming for the numbers or sideline, and punts in the middle of the field tend to give the returner more room to work with. The easiest way to chart this is to divide the field into zones – middle of the field between the hashes is Zone 1, from the hashes to the numbers is Zone 2, from the numbers to the sideline is Zone 3, and out of bounds is Zone 4. Simple.
4) Location the ball was kicked from – We need to know the line of scrimmage where the play started, because this allows us to judge what type of punt should have been executed. Generally, anything from the minus-40 to your own end zone is considered punting for distance territory. You’re backed up, and you need to flip the field against your opponent. A touchback from the minus-40 is awesome, because it means that you netted 40 yards with no return. Would you like to get it inside the 20? Of course, but that’s a bonus.
From the minus-40 to the plus-40, now you’re more concerned with fine touch and pinning the other team as close to their goal line as possible. Touchbacks here are bad, because it means you can’t control what you’re doing as a punter, and you should probably practice. From the plus-40 and in, you should be kicking field goals or going for it, unless it’s horrible weather conditions with no time left and you want to give your defense the best chance at stopping their last drive.
And that’s it. All you need to accurately determine how good a punter is, are these four pieces of information.
How Do These Numbers Work?
Let’s start with an example using current NFL statistics. On paper, we have two punters, Thing One and Thing Two, who’ve both punted 70 times this season. Thing One averages 49 yards gross, nets 41 yards, has 21 punts inside the 20 and four touchbacks. Thing Two averages 44 yards gross, nets 36 yards, has 17 punts inside the 20, and seven touchbacks. According to the NFL stats, Thing One looks much better than Thing Two, right?
Now let’s take a look at stats that matter.
Thing One hits 90% of his punts down the middle of the field, between 45-55 yards, with a variance of hangtime between 3.7 seconds to 4.8 seconds. Thing One’s trying to kill the ball, succeeds mostly, and when he fails, the returner is playing back deeper so a mishit is more likely to bounce and roll for positive net yardage (because returners are taught not to pick up balls on the ground if they can’t get a clean hop). All four of his touchbacks are from midfield and in, and half his punts inside the 20 are from between the minus 40 and minus 30 with low hangtime. Thing One also had multiple punts in Zone 1 that were 4.2 seconds of hangtime or less and over 45 yards of distance, but his coverage team managed to corral the returner after 4 or 5 yards of return yardage.
Thing Two hits 30% of his punts in Zone 2, and 60% of his punts in Zone 3, between 42 and 48 yards, with a variance of hangtime from 4.4 seconds to 4.7 seconds. Thing Two is placing the ball outside the numbers consistently for few return yards, but when he mishits it the returner is more likely to be there to catch the ball because his distance doesn’t vary as much so he doesn’t get any long bounces. Five of Thing Two’s touchbacks have come from between the minus-40 and minus-30, and another was 4.9 seconds of hangtime from the plus-45 but his gunner accidently kicked it into the end zone while trying to down it. 14 of Thing Two’s punts inside the 20 have come from midfield and in, but he also had a touchdown returned on a punt that was 45 yards with 4.6 seconds of hangtime in Zone 3 after the coverage unit suffered a breakdown in lane assignments.
Okay, so I’ve just pulverized your brain with numbers. What do they tell us?
What these numbers tell us, is that Thing One is a mediocre punter who is benefitting from both a very good coverage team and some dumb luck, and Thing Two is a very good punter who could use some better coverage players. He’s also consistently and measurably better than Thing One, despite Thing One having better stats in all the categories the NFL tracks.
Thing Two gives his coverage team a better chance to cover his kicks, both by hangtime and location, he has more control over his inside-the-20’s, and he’s probably in danger of getting fired at the end of season because the fans think he should go back to soccer and his GM will point to how he’s in the bottom third of the league in gross and net.
Sucks to be Thing Two under the current system.
How Do We Compare Different Types of Punters?
Some punters are middle of the field, bombs-away kind of guys. They’re looking to kick it as far and high as possible, swinging for the fences each time and trusting their coverage unit to track down the returner. Other guys are directional specialists, giving up the long ball to narrow the field for the coverage unit, making it easier for them to pin the returner against the sideline.
So who’s a better punter?
That’s where having granularity in your stats matters, because you can compare two guys who have different approaches in a way that makes sense.
A good punt is a combination of distance and hangtime and location. Most of the time, you get two out of the three. If you’re trying to crush the ball for distance and hangtime, you don’t have much control over location. If you’re going for location and distance, hangtime suffers because you’re driving the ball to a certain spot. Trying to get location and hangtime means you’re sacrificing distance to get the ball up high over by the sideline.
This gives us a way to compare punters with differing styles.
We can assign a point value to distance ranges, hangtime ranges, and zone ranges, and then use those to determine just how good any given punt was, regardless of punting style. Hitting a ball up the middle of the field is easy, so you need a higher hangtime compared to how far the distance is (giving your coverage team a better chance to cover). Hitting the ball closer to the sideline becomes progressively more difficult, so we value distance and hangtime more than we would a ball down the middle of the field as it’s harder to get all three.
For example, a 48-yard punt with 4.6 seconds of hangtime in Zone 1 would be valued the same as a 45-yard punt with 4.4 seconds of hangtime in Zone 2, which would be valued the same as a 42-yard punt with 4.3 seconds of hangtime in Zone 3, which would be valued the same as a 39-yard punt out of bounds.
All of these punts are giving the coverage unit a good chance of success, albeit in different ways, but currently only one of them is regarded as indicative of a good punter.
We can also use this granularity to determine whether a punt inside the 20 came from an actual inside-the-20 situation, or was a longer kick that happened to get behind the returner. A touchback on one of these means either the punter or the coverage team screwed up, and it’s important to know who. On the other, it means you still achieved a desirable outcome, and no one really bears any fault. See if you can guess which one is which!
What Does it All Mean?
Well, existentially, not a whole lot, but in terms of football knowledge, now you know the difference between a good punter and a bad punter based on statistics that actually matter, as opposed to what might as well be a Buzzfeed Top-15 list. Armed with this knowledge, you can now fight crime, stop pollution, and feed starving children in Africa, all while saving 139% on your car insurance.
Or, you know, continue yelling for a beer on fourth down. Whatever floats your boat.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWarcraft