Punters in Perspective: Open-Field Punting
Ben Stockwell breaks down the league's best and worst in key punting measures.
Punters in Perspective: Open-Field Punting
Last month Chris Kluwe penned an article for us shedding some light on the little understood art of punting. If you haven’t read it you should and if you have I’m sure you’ll agree it was the most informative and insightful article you have ever read on one of the least appreciated skills in the NFL.
One of the key takeaway points from the article was that even in this burgeoning age of statistics and analytics in football punting and the rest of special teams is being left by the wayside with the age-old crude statistics of the likes of gross average, punts inside the 20 and touchbacks insufficient to truly gauge how a punter is performing.
Chris advocated the use of a new group of statistics to enable us to gauge the quality of a punt in isolation from the play his coverage team or returners make. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on assessing the quality of punts last offseason and we were able to work with him to refine our punt grading system to incorporate these new data points into our analysis process for the 2013 season.
As we head quickly towards a new season and off of the back of Chris’ excellent article, it only seems fair to share this new punt data with you in a couple of articles looking at the two categories of punting that he highlighted as some of the key pieces of data to judge a punt.
Where a punt is launched from is a key consideration; launching a ball 60 yards from your own goal line is (in most cases) a very good thing, but doing the same thing from a punt at midfield isn’t going to be a good thing — no matter how close to the sideline or how high you send it, it’s coming back to the 20-yard line.
This then leads to the need to judge punts differently in regard to whether they are what we call “open-field” punts (from your own 1-yard line to your own 40-yard line) or “coffin” punts (any punt from your own 41-yard line forward). For this first article we’ll look at the open-field punts… a situation, as Chris described, where your team is backed up and you need to “flip the field against your opponent”. The more yards the better, but this has to be balanced with good hang-time and good direction without which you risk potentially giving your coverage team too much ground to cover to coral a dangerous returner.
Launching it Long
We’ll start on relatively familiar ground looking at gross distance that an open-field punt covers, but in line with the tweak to the data being considered, this is solely air yards, not any yards the punter may have gained on the bounce. The most extreme example of which was 25 yards for Ryan Allen against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
Top of the charts on air yards last season was Brad Nortman who, on average, fired his open-field punts nearly 52 yards downfield. His distance on them was enough for him to be one of only 10 punters to get multiple touchbacks from the open field. After Nortman some familiar names line up with the likes of Shane Lechler, Thomas Morstead and Andy Lee underlining their quality by joining Nortman as the only four with an air yards average of more than 50 yards.
At the other end of the scale you see the disparity between the league’s strongest and weakest legs in the open field with the best having a 10-yard advantage over the likes of Adam Podlesh and Mat McBriar. Clearly air yards aren’t the only factor to a good punt, but getting an extra 10 yards on average is certainly an excellent starting point to build your punt from with hang-time and direction yet to be added.
Firing it High
Beyond distance another way to help your coverage team is to launch it high and give them the time to cover ground and be right on top of the returner as he fields the punt, brings his eyes down, and picks a path for his return.
Leading the way in 2013 for hang-time was Mike Scifres, and by quite some distance as well — Scifres held a lead of nearly a full second of hang-time per punt over last place man, Brandon Fields. In the process, Scifers launched more than half of his open-field punts with a hang-time in excess of five seconds, which compared to a league-wide average of less than 10%.
Combining those hang-time figures with the air yards marks, we get somewhat of a look at the rate at which punters are getting the ball down the field, are they launching it long but so flat that the coverage team can’t hope to minimize return yards? Or are they launching it short but so high that returners have little opportunity to do much more than signal fair catch?
In this instance, we’re looking at the fewer yards covered per second being the better and even with an average open-field punt of 47 yards, Scifres’ gaudy hang-time numbers ensure that he leads the league when you combine hang-time and distance on open-field punts. Joining him in the Top 5 is fellow AFC West punter Britton Colquitt who perhaps didn’t take the advantage of the mile high air that you might expect in terms of air yards (45.4) but with solid hang-time struck a good balance of distance and loft.
Driving it Outside
The final factor once you’ve launched it long and high is where you place your punt across the field. Down the middle of the field gives the opposing returner the option of going left or right, making it very difficult for the return team to pin him down. Meanwhile, striking it outside the numbers allows the coverage team to take a large part of the field away unless the return man wants to run the risk of giving up yards to try and gain them back reversing field.
Top of the class last season was Morstead after he drove more than 75% of his open field punts outside the numbers and put as many open field punts out of bounds as he left between the numbers. Only nine other punters put more than half of their open field punts outside the numbers while at the bottom of the list — and a way off the bottom — rookie punter Jeff Locke managed to land only five of his 50 open-field punts outside the numbers and left a league high 28% (14-of-50) of his punts between the hash marks.
Keep an eye out next week for Part 2 that will cover the league’s best and worst at “coffin” punting.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.