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What I Really Meant About the Future of Punting
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From the comments, here’s what I should have said after seeing an U. of Utah’s Australian punter Tom Hackett play a major role in the Ute’s upset of top ten ranked UCLA in the Rose Bowl on Saturday:

Tom Regan says:

October 8, 2014 at 7:54 am GMT

Hackett is quite a departure from the other Australians who have found success as punters at NFL level. The main examples of the past were Darren Bennett, Saverio Rocca and Ben Graham. All those three played Aussie Rules at the highest level, and all were recognized as extremely long kicks in the AFL. They were masters of what in Aussie Rules is called the ‘torpedo punt’, which is to get the ball to spin in a spiral, which is the standard technique in American football punting but now quite rare in the top levels of Australian Rules. Those kicks get extra distance but have a far greater margin for error than the commonly used ‘drop punt’ in which the ball spins end over end, producing much higher rates of accuracy and control albeit with less distance.

An end-over-end kick is very hard to achieve with an American football as the ball tapers to a relatively sharp point, whereas an Australian Rules ball is more akin to a rugby ball – egg-shaped but with a rounder end. For that reason, American punting aspirants would be largely wasting their time learning Australian Rules kicking techniques, as they’re inapplicable in the American game.

What they could learn from Aussie Rules, and what Hackett draws upon, is his movement with the ball before punting it. In Aussie Rules its common to run with the ball in hand, drawing tacklers toward you, and then kicking it just before they reach you – hence drawing opponents out of position – or even sidestepping them as they lunge or fending off tacklers with one arm. Hackett’s background in the sport clearly makes him much more comfortable moving with the ball, and letting tacklers get close to him.

So what aspiring punters could learn from the Australian game is the confidence to keep the ball in hand longer before punting it to allow teammates to advance further downfield. To do that, you’d have to instill in them the willingness to ‘take on’ the onrushing tacklers with lateral and forward movement – akin to a QB in the pocket.

Obviously, the Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is taking a big risk by putting the ball in the hands of a kid who had never paid attention to American football until three years ago and telling him to improvise a little bit out there. A blocked punt can be disastrous.

Utah is a modest team in what’s considered the second toughest conference after the SEC these days. Utah needs to shoot the moon to represent the Pac 12 in the new national playoff, so the coach is taking chances.

On the other hand, my rough estimate is that Hackett singlehandedly pushed UCLA back about 80 yards versus what an average punter would have done. (Hackett averaged 49 yards on his 8 punts, with only one touchback, four times pinning UCLA within its 20, and only 1 yard of return for UCLA, who has a dangerous punt returner. If Utah can average 350 yards of offense per game, that’s like adding 20% to 25%. But the upset of UCLA was a spectacular performance, and he probably averages 5% or 10%. But that’s still a big deal.

But a single blocked punt could wipe out 50 yards or more. So, in the long run, the future of punting could be American football players, typically smart quarterbacks who don’t quite have what it takes to move up the next level and start at QB.

The bigger picture is this: the NFL has 32 placekickers and 32 punters, virtually all of them white guys and virtually none of them stars in a league where almost all the stars other than quarterbacks are black. Would it be so bad for the NFL if it had more stars and more white stars?

Four decades ago, before placekickers and punters got so boringly competent, they could be stars. For example, the 1970 MVP of the NFL was 43-year old George Blanda, a substitute QB and placekicker who won a number of games with last second field goals. As late as the strike shortened 9 game 1982 season, straight-ahead kicker Mark Moseley was NFL MVP. Here’s Grantland being sort of amused, sort of offended by that:

Back then, kicking a field goal was so chancy that the kicker was a hero for making it. Nowadays, he’s just a bum for missing it.

Punter Ray Guy of the Raiders was a 1970s star too, although not in the Blanda sense.

Changes in rules and strategies that would make placekicking and punting more interesting would make the game more interesting.

At present, of course, the game is gigantically profitable as it is, even with stupid things like the extra point kick, so there’s little incentive for change.

 
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  1. One ancillary benefit of having former Australian Rules players at punter is they can actually lay an effective tackle as the last man preventing a touchdown on a punt return.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYyOvoolACo

  2. Not disagreeing with the central premise, but… Rugby players have learned the drop punt (presumably from Aussie Rules), and these days the torpedo is as rare in rugby as it is in modern Aussie Rules. The shape of the rugby ball has not changed. )

    Formulate your own conclusions/hypotheses.

  3. In Britain, a “punter” is a slang for one who solicits a prostitute (like a “John” in the US). From looking at the headline I assumed there would be some mention of that.

  4. Finally, a comment-worthy topic. 🙂

    Kicks used to be a valuable component of football offense — a quick-kick on second down could be devastating when successful. A lot of what’s wrong with football today is a product of rule-changes put in place to further owners’ agendas.

    The re-empowerment of skilled kicking could give the sport another ten years of TV life.

  5. It seems to me that the chances for the kicking team to be called for an illegal man downfield would increase exponentially if the punter is running around in the backfield.

  6. As I commented on the previous post on this subject…

    The end-over-end punt may be more difficult to achieve with an NFL ball, but apparently not too hard for experienced Aussie Rules types. See here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CedyAkigffw

    Much more discussion of this issue at 17:50 of this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWEocllgWAI

    Somewhere in that second video, an early Aussie NFL punter complains that commentators were forever saying his end-over punts were mistakes he’d shanked, not realizing that he’d very much done it on purpose.

  7. Tom Tupa is the obvious precedent http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Tupa

    Be a good enough QB to be 3rd string (emergency) QB and be good enough to punt.

    17 years of NFL paychecks with the benefit of not having a scrambled brain.

    Competent back-up QB wouldn’t be a bad career. Lots of benefits fewer of the draw backs

    • Replies: @Ron Mexico
    @paddy

    Go a bit further back, Danny White, Dallas starting QB and P. If not for Joe Montana, White would be considered just as great as guys like Eli Manning, and he was an equally good punter.

  8. It needs to be taken into account that only two “gunners” (potential receivers) can be further than five yards down field. A delayed punt greatly increases the chances that the kicking team will commit a penalty.

  9. “In Britain, a “punter” is a slang for one who solicits a prostitute (like a “John” in the US). ”

    It’s actually more of a general term for men doing laddish things, whether going down to the sports book or having a few too many pints or, yes, soliciting a prostitute.

  10. There was that punter who came out in favor of gay marriage…unfortunately he wasn’t that good. Apparently he owns a miniatures/RPG store in Costa Mesa now.

  11. I was at that game, and he was definitely a big different in the game. But what I didn’t understand then, and still don’t, is why UCLA rushers didn’t tee off on him after he kicked it. I’m pretty sure the roughing the punter penalty is only supposed to protect a guy who catches it and kicks it. Once he runs with it (or drops it), he’s fair game. Some other coach is going to realize this and, assuming the referees don’t screw up and call it roughing, that guy will probably stop doing that after getting clocked a couple times while vulnerable (assuming he is still able to take the field).

  12. I saw a college highlight recently where a team converted a 1st down with a “rugby kick” – essentially a short punt caught by one of their receivers. If that’s legal, that opens more possibilities.

  13. The receiver would have to be onside with the punter. In the NFL, the onside kick is legal for a kick-off (obviously) but not for a punt. It’s legal in the CFL, however.

  14. Didn’t Ray Guy once bounce a punt off the ceiling of the Astro or Super Dome? That guy was a game changer. He killed the Vikings in the Super bowl.

    And JJS says “a quick-kick on second down could be devastating when successful. A lot of what’s wrong with football today is a product of rule-changes put in place to further owners’ agendas.”

    What if it were anybody’s ball when it is kicked? That is, if the offense could recover the ball on punts or quick kicks? That would sure add excitement and unpredictability to the game.

    • Replies: @John Jeremiah Smith
    @Threecranes

    Yes, that's what a quick-kick was, back when it was legal. Anybody's ball, but, if you were the team doing the kicking, you had people hauling-ass downfield to fall on the kick. Made for some exciting plays, back in the day.

  15. @Threecranes
    Didn't Ray Guy once bounce a punt off the ceiling of the Astro or Super Dome? That guy was a game changer. He killed the Vikings in the Super bowl.

    And JJS says "a quick-kick on second down could be devastating when successful. A lot of what’s wrong with football today is a product of rule-changes put in place to further owners’ agendas."

    What if it were anybody's ball when it is kicked? That is, if the offense could recover the ball on punts or quick kicks? That would sure add excitement and unpredictability to the game.

    Replies: @John Jeremiah Smith

    Yes, that’s what a quick-kick was, back when it was legal. Anybody’s ball, but, if you were the team doing the kicking, you had people hauling-ass downfield to fall on the kick. Made for some exciting plays, back in the day.

  16. In Britain, a “punter” is a slang for one who solicits a prostitute (like a “John” in the US).

    In Britain, it’s also slang for someone who places a bet.

    • Replies: @Lurker
    @ben tillman


    In Britain, it’s also slang for someone who places a bet.

     

    Indeed, with somewhat derogatory overtones, punter meaning "mark".

    However punter has evolved from this into a more widely used informal term for customers/viewers/participants etc I think this useage has taken hold in Australia too.

    Eg The new Dr Who is really getting the punters in. Starbucks is seeing a lot of punters through the doors.

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/30/ken-loach-jimmys-hall-critics

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2723902/Swan-dubbed-Asboy-attacks-punters-enjoy-trips-Cambridge-just-like-dad-called-Asbo-used-to.html

    Replies: @Steve Sailer

  17. @ben tillman

    In Britain, a “punter” is a slang for one who solicits a prostitute (like a “John” in the US).
     
    In Britain, it's also slang for someone who places a bet.

    Replies: @Lurker

    In Britain, it’s also slang for someone who places a bet.

    Indeed, with somewhat derogatory overtones, punter meaning “mark”.

    However punter has evolved from this into a more widely used informal term for customers/viewers/participants etc I think this useage has taken hold in Australia too.

    Eg The new Dr Who is really getting the punters in. Starbucks is seeing a lot of punters through the doors.

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/30/ken-loach-jimmys-hall-critics

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2723902/Swan-dubbed-Asboy-attacks-punters-enjoy-trips-Cambridge-just-like-dad-called-Asbo-used-to.html

    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
    @Lurker

    Doesn't punting in England have something to do with boats and rivers?

  18. @Lurker
    @ben tillman


    In Britain, it’s also slang for someone who places a bet.

     

    Indeed, with somewhat derogatory overtones, punter meaning "mark".

    However punter has evolved from this into a more widely used informal term for customers/viewers/participants etc I think this useage has taken hold in Australia too.

    Eg The new Dr Who is really getting the punters in. Starbucks is seeing a lot of punters through the doors.

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/30/ken-loach-jimmys-hall-critics

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2723902/Swan-dubbed-Asboy-attacks-punters-enjoy-trips-Cambridge-just-like-dad-called-Asbo-used-to.html

    Replies: @Steve Sailer

    Doesn’t punting in England have something to do with boats and rivers?

  19. “Punter” would be a good term for an anti-euro Irishman.

  20. The unbelievably entertaining definitive history of The Sun newspaper is called Stick it Up Your Punter!

  21. This morning’s Washington Post has an article about an Australian kicker at the University of Maryland, Brad Craddock. (link)

    “That Craddock ever would become Maryland’s place kicker seemed unlikely. In the months after graduating from high school, he worked as a tennis coach in southern Australia, piecing together films of his punts from Australian rules football to send to every Football Championship Subdivision program in the country. For three months, he would stay up until 3 a.m. calling and e-mailing athletic departments, hoping a coach would take a chance on him.”

  22. @paddy
    Tom Tupa is the obvious precedent http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Tupa

    Be a good enough QB to be 3rd string (emergency) QB and be good enough to punt.

    17 years of NFL paychecks with the benefit of not having a scrambled brain.

    Competent back-up QB wouldn't be a bad career. Lots of benefits fewer of the draw backs

    Replies: @Ron Mexico

    Go a bit further back, Danny White, Dallas starting QB and P. If not for Joe Montana, White would be considered just as great as guys like Eli Manning, and he was an equally good punter.

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