NFL punters face a perfect pickle

One morning in December last year, Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson sat on the floor of his house and meditated. He slowed his b...


One morning in December last year, Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson sat on the floor of his house and meditated. He slowed his breathing and wiped his mind. He didn’t think about this afternoon’s game with division rival Los Angeles Rams, or the fact that, if the Seahawks won, they would win the NFC West title. He wasn’t thinking of anything at all.

“I also try to bring that attention to the rowing world,” Dickson, 25, said in a telephone interview last month. “I don’t want to make a habit of trying to have the perfect game just one shot at a time.”

Dickson was pretty close to perfect that day, nabbing the Rams in their 20-yard line on four of five punts, including on soaring 56- and 51-yard punts. With the Seahawks protecting a 4-point lead in the fourth quarter, he tilted his hips to the right, then shot left, sending a low, jerky ball to a far section of the sideline. Cooper Kupp, the Rams’ top receiver, had to sprint the width of the field to recover the punt at the 11-yard line. He succeeds just one step before his momentum pushes him out of bounds.

The Rams’ subsequent training stalled and led to a Seahawks touchdown on the next possession. Seattle went on to win, 20-9, in part because Dickson was nearly perfect, so overlooked.

“People say, ‘That’s a third of the game,'” said Mike Westhoff, 73, a retired special teams coach whose units with the New Orleans Jets and Saints were among the best of the NFL in the 2000s and 2010. “It used to be, but it’s not now.”

The NFL’s offensive boom has reconfigured the proportions of football. Not only do more workouts end with scores, but analytics-trained coaches understand the value of trying a first down instead of losing possession on a fourth and a short.

Following the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl title run at the end of the 2017 season, in which coach Doug Pederson steadily maintained his offense in fourth, the number of punters fell by 230 in the league, to 2,214. During the 2020 season – the league’s most successful, 700 points more than any previous year – that number fell to 1,901. This year, the teams are on the verge of kicking less. four times per game for only the second time in league history.

With far fewer opportunities, the margins for error are thinner, so bettors have to be excellent. In 2010, only three bettors averaged over 40 net yards per try. Last season, more than two-thirds of the league crossed that mark.

“These guys get stronger and bigger just like any other football player,” said Jeff Feagles, who kicked for five franchises from 1988 to 2009 and holds the NFL record for cumulative distance. “There are camps these guys go to now, starting in their freshman year of high school. Back then there were no instructions, you just learned how to do it. The other thing is the Australian invasion; they have this repertoire of kicks that we’ve never had.

Dickson – a 6-foot-2 Australian who weighs 208 pounds, with solid biceps security – is at the forefront of both trends. In the offseason, after an All-Pro rookie year in 2018 and an even better statistical campaign in 2020, he signed a four-year contract extension of $ 14.5 million ($ 8.5 million guaranteed), the second-the most valuable bettor contract in the NFL

The deal was the culmination of Dickson’s development into a kick scientist type. At 19, he attended Prokick Australia, a Melbourne academy that since 2009 has turned some Australian football players into top punters. (Seattle’s Week 4 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, employed another former Prokick student, Mitch Wishnowsky, who leads the NFL in percentage.)

Under the guidance of Nathan Chapman, a former Australian Football League bettor and founder of Prokick, Dickson refined the firecrackers and spinners used for ball control in Australia and took over the high spiral technique favored by punters. Americans hoping to get a college scholarship. in the USA.

Dickson kicked for as long as Australian daylight allowed. (“If you don’t watch him he’ll throw a thousand balls in practice,” said Larry Izzo, the Seahawks special teams coach.) One morning Chapman watched the teenage work from a distance to increase his time. suspension – the interval that a kick spends in the air, allowing the cover team to run down. “He absolutely slaughtered the ball,” Chapman said. “Five seconds is the level of the NFL; he was up about five seconds before he even went to college.

After his junior season at the University of Texas, when Dickson won the Ray Guy Award as the top varsity bettor, Seattle picked him in the fifth round of the 2018 Draft. In his rookie season, he finished second in the NFL for average punt distance. Last year, he maintained that position while pinning teams in the 20 with 51% of his kicks, the third best in the league.

The small sample size of kicks means that these rankings can fluctuate significantly over the course of a season. After an unusual four touchdown streak in four games, Dickson’s net distance fell to 39.9 in 2021. But he pinned the 49ers in their own 20s three times on Sunday, jumping the Puntalytics Punter Expected points added ranking.

With its extensive catalog of flat spirals, “Bananas” that veer aside, goblets upside down – Dickson’s virtuosity agrees; its usefulness, less. Seattle coach Pete Carroll is widely regarded as one of the most conservative decision makers in the NFL, preferring to shoot the ball and let Dickson show off his rock-solid skill. But that doesn’t do much for the Seahawks’ chances of winning or to silence fan calls to let Russell Wilson “cook.”

Since 2018, facing fourth base with 5 yards or less to go between the 40-yard lines – an analytically sound situation and ideal for many modern teams – Seattle has kicked 34 of 40 times. Twice against the Titans in the course of in Week 2, the Seahawks kicked in fourth and short-lived situations when the numbers informed otherwise; they lost by 3 points in overtime.

“A lot of the time when you’re pinning teams deep you shouldn’t be punting,” said Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders editor-in-chief. “It would be more valuable to Seattle if they had a worse kicker, if that convinced Carroll not to kick so much.”

The Seattle coaching staff maintains that there is a secondary advantage to be gained – especially in the tight games that should decide NFC West, whose teams all sit at or above 0.500 for four weeks. “Anytime you pin your opponent inside the 5-yard line you’re looking for your defense to gain a lot of momentum and stop, and now you have shorter ground,” Izzo said. “It’s a specific game that can lead to points when we perform at a high level.”

It’s a tall order: Dickson has to be almost flawless to justify his work. But the lure of perfection is poison for its process. He can only focus on the angle of the fall, the flight path.

“You’re trying to get all the emotion out of it,” Dickson said, “whether it’s the division, the Super Bowl, whatever. You’re just trying to get the best result on every punt. And in the end. of the year, they all add up.



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