Steve Sailer has recently been mulling over the idea that bringing in former Australian Rules football players to become NFL punters could shake up the game by giving teams that employ them a competitive advantage and making 4th downs more exciting in the process.
Steve suspects that punts often referred to by commentators unfamiliar with either of the big field games down under as “rugby style” kicks are actually footy style kicks. He’s correct. To understand why, it helps to delve into an important difference between rugby and footy, the mark.
In both sports, when a mark is awarded, the player making the mark gets a free kick, which is just what it sounds like and is quite advantageous.
In footy, as long as the ball has traveled at least 10 meters in the air off the sending player’s foot and hasn’t touched any other players, a player who catches it is awarded a free kick. In rugby, only defenders are able to mark the ball. Unlike rugby, when a footy player is kicking down field to a teammate, if that teammate is able to catch it he will be awarded a free kick. Consequently, the footy player kicking down field has an incentive to make the ball easy to catch. The rugby player, in contrast, doesn’t want to make the ball all that easy to catch since the opposing team’s defender might be able to get a mark out of it. Better to have it crumb in rugby than in footy (from an offensive perspective).
Consequently, footy players learn to kick the ball so that it back spins. Rugby players, in contrast, kick it so it spins forward. A side effect of the footy backspin is that the ball tends to lose its forward ‘momentum’ when it hits the ground (sort of like a basketball does when you spin it backwards as you throw it forward, but less predictably of course due to the differences in shape) while a ruby kick tends to bounce forward. Increasing the likelihood that the ball will die near the spot that it first lands has obvious implications for precision in placing the ball inside the opponent’s 20 on a punt without having it go into the end zone.
For distance, spinning the ball end over end, either backwards or forwards, isn’t as effect as torpedoing it. Thus rugby-style kicks don’t really carry any inherent advantages over footy-style or torpedo kicks and aren’t utilized much in football.
Tangentially, while Steve’s ideas are intriguing, I’m not sure how realistic an NFL punter running to the right or left as a footy player does before kicking the ball down field is. Punters taking snaps straight back and immediately kicking the ball behind an offensive line formation designed to maximize said punter’s protection still only gives punter’s fractions of a second to get the ball off before getting tackled or having his kick blocked. The NFL is a much faster game than college football is.
On a self-indulgent note, two weekends ago I played my last amateur footy game. I was able to score three goals against a great Denver team, thus ending a fun six year career on a high note. The jersey had to be retired for the predictable reasons. I’m in my thirties now, have suffered three broken ribs (each one on a separate occasion), sustained a concussion this season, and have received the countless bloody noses, bruises, and scrapes that are part of the game. Add to that a wife who worries and two kids (and counting) who shouldn’t have to, and I guess I have to conclude now’s the right time.