The internet got its fill of punter jokes on Friday when the Indianapolis Colts slapped the franchise tag on punter Pat McAfee. Every out of work linguistics PhD chimed in with a joke about the word "franchise" and punters. Hilarity ensued. Now that the comedy has subsided, I'd just like to point out that the Colts made a pretty shrewd move here.
Head coach Chuck Pagano identified the team's priority with McAfee at the Combine, from ESPN:
Obviously, we've reached out and are working to get Pat re-signed. We saw what he did for us last year. He's a great weapon.
We overlook, regularly, how important punters and kickers are until they fail to do their jobs, especially when it comes to field goals - looking at you David Akers. Kickoffs and punts matter too, because field position is a vastly underrated part of of the game.
McAfee averaged 48.2 yards per punt last season, breaking his own franchise record from the year before. Fortunately for the Colts, they didn't need him to punt quite as much in 2012 as they did in 2011. He put 26 of 73 punts inside the 20-yard line. 45 of his 79 kickoffs were touchbacks. It led to a significant advantage in field position for a Colts defense that needed all the help it could get.
Indianapolis' defense faced an average starting field position of 24.98 yards, third-best in the league according to Football Outsiders. Of the 10 teams that led the NFL last season in average starting field position for their defense, only one, the Chicago Bears, failed to make the playoffs.
Cliche alert: NFL teams look for every advantage they can get. Coaches talk about the value of field position all the time in their post-game remarks. You might have missed that for all the references to the rest of the executing well or not executing well.
The advantage of field position should be fairly obvious. The further an offense has to go, the more difficult it is to point points on the board. The great minds over at Advanced NFL Statistics have quantified the value of opponent field position.
From 2000 through 2011, they found a correlation of 0.45 between win percentage and average opponent starting field position. That translates into a team's overall record, and it might just be more important than it's ever been thanks to changes in the kickoff rules. From the ANS blog post explaining the value of opponent starting field position:
In fact, for every 3 yards closer to their opponent's end zone, a team will add 2 wins on average. Kickoff rules have changed the game, however. Since 2000, average starting field position was around the 31 yardline. This year, it is the 28.4 yardline. It is this change that may be the cause of the noticeably higher correlation in 2011 - starting field position is now at a premium. The previously highest correlation in a single year since 2000 was in 2000 at 0.63.
The Colts skated into the playoffs with a fifth seed, thanks to an 11-5 record. There were two teams with worse records, including the eventual Super Bowl champs.
Even with those 11 wins, more than a few scoffed at Indianapolis' presence in the postseason, but it wasn't just a fluke. A pronounced advantage in opponent field position accounts for a part of the difference in the Colts' 11 wins and a surprising trip to the playoffs or nine wins and a season that ended in December.
This year, like every year, teams will pay $4 and $5 million for above average linebackers and defensive tackles. When you think about salary dollars in those terms, $3 million for a punter/kicker is a relatively sound investment for a decided advantage.