Friday, January 15, 2010
December 21, 2009
From John Ed Bradley's "A Booming Boom"
Statistics suggest that this is the golden age of NFL punting. During the first 12 weeks of the season, the average punt went 44.3 yards, a half yard farther than the record set last year. Punters were on pace to drop 868 balls inside their opponents' 20-yard lines, 103 more than the league mark set in 2007. And the Raiders' Shane Lechler was on course to equal or break the season record of 51.40 yards per punt set 69 years ago by Sammy Baugh. Yet among fans, the punter may be the least appreciated man in the game. Even when he does his job well, placing the ball as close as possible to the opponent's goal line, he exits the field to tepid applause. More often than not, when he faces scrutiny, it is unwelcome, coming after a fumbled snap or a badly kicked ball that lands out-of-bounds just yards past the line of scrimmage. Once, after a game the Seahawks nearly lost because he shanked a punt, rookie Donnie Jones ran off the field to so many boos from the home crowd that he wanted to hide—or, better yet, vanish. "I could hear people yelling, 'Get a day job! You should be behind a desk!'" says Jones. The experience left him so devastated that he stayed in bed for 20 hours afterward.
But punters' recent successes, rather than their disappointments, should be examined before somebody at a year-end banquet hands a punter a trophy engraved with MOST VALUABLE PLAYER. Punters (yes, punters!) have become what coaches call difference makers, and the difference they're making has observers of the game wondering if the punter is a defensive weapon every bit the equal of a shutdown cover corner or a run-stuffing middle linebacker.
The Chargers' Mike Scifres dominated a playoff game against the Colts last January with six kicks that pinned Peyton Manning and his offense inside their 20-yard line. Scifres's performance, which led the Chargers to a 23--17 overtime win, rated among the most memorable put up by any player in the 2008 season. And this season, on Oct. 11, the Browns' Dave Zastudil was so brilliant against the Bills that the eight-year veteran practically won the game by himself (diagram, opposite). He punted nine times; seven of the boots forced the Bills to start from inside their 20, and three of those put them inside their five. The Bills have a fine return man in Roscoe Parrish, but Zastudil and the Browns' cover team limited him to seven yards. Zastudil's last punt traveled 57 yards to Buffalo's 16, where Parrish fumbled the ball, setting up the Browns' game-winning field goal seven plays later with 26 seconds left on the clock.
ZASTUDIL BEATS BILLS 6--3, the headlines should've read. But none did. For some reason that needs to be fixed, headline writers never think to immortalize punters. And how do you pronounce Zastudil, anyway? Is it zas-TOO-dull or zas-too-DILL? You never struggled with the pronunciation of Manning or Brady, did you? It's zas-too-DILL, and we should all be ashamed for not knowing.