In 1989, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham punted a ball 91 yards in a windy game against the New York Giants. Nearly three decades later it stands as the third-longest punt in NFL history.
It was no fluke. Yes, the wind helped, but Cunningham booted the hell out of it.
But he was a special case. During his time at UNLV, Cunningham was an All-American punter in 1983 and 1984, and he stepped back to punt 20 times during his NFL career. In addition to his 91-yarder in 1989, he blasted another one 80 yards in 1994.
There are some really athletic quarterbacks in the NFL today, but it’s hard to imagine even someone like Cam Newton launching a 70-yard punt over the head of a returner. That’s why there are professional punters who are the best in the world at doing that.
But how far could a decent athlete get a punt to bounce if there was no returner back to receive? A simple line drive punt that goes 25 or so yards would have the chance to skip and roll for a while if there was nobody back to keep it in front of them.
So stop giving teams the luxury of a punt returner.
Pooch punt always
Tom Brady got a chance to test his punting skills in a playoff game against the Denver Broncos. Up 45-10 in the final minutes, Bill Belichick toyed with Denver a bit by calling for a punt on third down. Brady punted the ball about 37 yards and then got another 11 yards after it bounced without a Broncos player back to receive.
Belichick called for the same exact strategy back in 2008, allowing Matt Cassel to punt on third down. With no one back to receive, the ball bounced and rolled all the way to the one-yard line, 58 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The same strategy likely would’ve worked on fourth down, too. No matter how far the distance is for a first down, what defensive coordinator in their right mind would send a punt returner back and give a quarterback an 11 vs. 10 situation?
It’s pretty simple: If a defense is forced to choose between sending a punt returner back to receive or having 11 men to defend a possible conversion attempt, they’ll likely pick 11 men every single time. And in a league where it’s harder than ever to defend the pass, that’s the right call.
Letting your quarterback do the punting can probably result in some pretty decent field position swaps in a league where only half the teams have a net punting average over 40 yards. It also gives the team the peace of mind of knowing that no return is on the way.
Imagine being able to eliminate the possibility that a player like Tyreek Hill will ruin your day with one big punt return.
Yes, there are exceptions
Eventually, there will be a down and distance where a team will be willing to send a player back to receive. If a team is facing a 4th-and-25, should it let their quarterback punt a ball straight into the arms of a returner who will only have offensive linemen and wide receiver to beat? No, that’s a bad idea.
But how often will that situation present itself?
There were 2,334 punts during the 2016 season and over 20 percent of them (468) were on fourth downs with three yards or fewer to go. About another 50 percent of them (1,165) were 4-10 yards from a first down.
Altogether, fewer than 300 punts came on a fourth down with more than 15 yards to go. That’s less than 10 per team in an entire 16-game season.
Maybe it’s worth it to have a punter on roster for that bad, but uncommon situation. Maybe it’s better to use that roster spot on another player and let your kicker come in and give it a shot.
That would just depend on each team’s situation.
Will it ever happen?
For years, the NFL has tried its best to get teams to attempt more two-point conversions. It was already a mathematically better decision and rule changes have made it more obvious than ever that teams should go for two way more often.
Why? Because the NFL is a conservative league with coaches who make conservative choices. Asking your quarterback to also be your punter is a fun idea, but no coach wants to be the guy who has to explain why they let Blake Bortles shank a ball off the side of his foot for a six-yard punt.
They also don’t want to be the one who has to explain why Derek Carr is making $25 million per year to throw passes, but just pulled a hamstring doing something else.
Oh well. At least we get to watch Marquette King.