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This is the golden age of NFL punting

NFL punters have never been better or more dangerous, evolving one of football’s necessary evils into a true art form.

Two things are true:

  1. Johnny Hekker may be the best punter who has ever lived.
  2. Johnny Hekker is responsible for one of the worst punts you will ever see.

The second point informs the first, so let’s start there. In 2011, Oregon State was playing No. 8 Wisconsin in Madison, and Hekker, who was lined up just three yards in front of his own end zone, rolled right to execute a rugby-style punt and uncorked the mother of all shanks — a negative 4-yard punt.

“Oh no,” the 28-year-old Rams punter laughs when I ask him what happened. “I was facing the sideline when I went to kick the ball, and just dropped the ball outside my body, and just shanked it off the side of my foot facing sideways.

“I realized I was so embarrassed and so mad at myself that no matter who talked crap about me — or who said this and that, that I was terrible, or should be cut and have my scholarship taken away — no one was more upset than I was in that moment.”

Notice in the YouTube video that when Hekker drops the ball, it hits nearly perpendicular to his foot instead of lengthwise like a good spiral kick ought to. Punting is filled with details that are inscrutable to the naked eye, but it should make intuitive sense to anyone that the football will probably go farther if it looks more like a hot dog than a hamburger when you kick it.

Now watch this from six years later in Hekker’s career:

Hekker hamburgers the crap out of this football, too, only this time he hits it how he wants. Facing straight down the middle of the field, standing at the Rams’ 41-yard-line when he takes the snap, he is able to curve the ball toward the right sideline by kicking that perpendicular football near its left tip so that it helicopters off his right foot. The result: 38 yards, no chance for a return, pinning the opponent against their own end zone. (Note: It sure as hell looks like the ball goes out at the 5-yard line and not the 7, where it was eventually placed. That linesman owes Hekker an apology.)

What Hekker executed is known as a banana punt, which is an Aussie Rules football scoring staple. The banana is still considered too difficult and risky for many punters in the NFL — Hekker’s unintentional banana punt attempt against Wisconsin being an extreme example of how badly it can go — but it is gradually gaining a deeper foothold in the NFL, along with other speciality punts, thanks in no small part to a growing legion of Australians who grew up kicking oblong spheroids and are now realizing that their skills can translate into college scholarships and NFL salaries.

Hekker isn’t Australian, but he is one of punting’s new masters elevating it to an art form, along with veterans like the Ravens’ Sam Koch, the Saints’ Thomas Morstead, the Chiefs’ Dustin Colquitt, and yes, lots of young Aussies like the Eagles’ Cameron Johnston, the Steelers’ Jordan Berry, and the Seahawks’ Michael Dickson. They all have strong legs, but more importantly, they are studying, measuring, tinkering, and bravely hauling out the latest additions to their arsenals onto football fields everywhere.

This is a golden age of punting. The numbers make the case. Though punting stats are largely unfair to punters, according to the best simple measure of quality — net punting average — the last three seasons of punting have been blisteringly good. In 2003, a generation ago, two punters averaged at least 40 net yards per punt. In 2017, 22 players topped 40 yards. 2003’s net yards leader Mitch Berger would have finished in the bottom half of the league in 2016, and several atmospheric layers below Hekker, who averaged 46 net yards per punt that year in perhaps the greatest season a punter has ever had.

A punter’s job is no longer simply to kick the ball high and far while fans hold their collective breath that this time isn’t the time when the ball flies sideways into the stands. No, punters are now neutralizing and terrorizing the most electric return men in the NFL with kicks that spin and move and bounce and flip in all sorts of unpredictable, terror-inducing ways. In 2017, a New York Times headline suggested, in all earnestness, that Hekker might even be the league MVP.

“To the outside world it can seem like a useless position, like, ‘Aww man you don’t really need a punter,’” Hekker says. “But those who know, know. And the hidden yardage, if you can start someone inside the 10-yard line as opposed to getting a touchback and letting them start at the 20, just the percentages of them scoring on that drive change drastically.”

Indeed, punters have shifted from one of football’s lightly tolerated necessary evils to the game’s latest frontier of strategy and jaw-dropping skill, all before our eyes.

To give an idea of how underappreciated punting is, consider how few programs, even at the highest level of the sport, have dedicated kicking coaches.

The Ravens’ Randy Brown may be the only coach in the NFL whose sole focus is specialists — that is, the team’s kicker, punter, and long snapper. (It’s difficult to say for sure, but a scan of assistant NFL special teams coaches turns up exclusively non-specialist backgrounds. The Saints’ Deuce Schwartz was the only other coach I found whose team bio claimed that he assists in “the kicking game.”) Last year, kicking expert and former college kicker Chuck Zodda told SB Nation’s Adam Stites that, in a traditional two-hour practice, kickers may be supervised for just 12 to 15 minutes.

Special teams coaches do work closely with their punters to game plan around certain returners, but specialists often have to get their technical instruction done in the offseason at kicking and punting camps run by one of just a handful of gurus. In such close proximity to their peers, punters often catch ideas like germs.

Mike McCabe runs One on One Kicking, which has helped develop star punters like Hekker, Patriots punter Ryan Allen, Raiders punter Johnny Townsend, and Bears punter Pat O’Donnell. Those players often go back to One on One’s home base in Atlanta to work with McCabe and help him coach younger generations of aspiring specialists.

“The talent nationwide, not many people know how to coach punting,” says McCabe, who was an All-American punter for Illinois State in 1988. “There’s maybe three or four coaches that I know that have a better understanding of what they’re doing, so that when someone like myself gets a hold of [a punter] it’s easier to mold them, if that makes sense. It’s not an easy thing to learn.”

The important thing those offseason camps offer is the absolute freedom to experiment, which has been vital to the evolution of punting. It’s on punters to show their coaches that they can execute difficult kicks, because too often those coaches will only ask that they don’t make mistakes.

“I learn from them now, which is great because there’s certain things that I may not know about, or how to do it, and I’ll ask them, ‘What kind of punt was that?’” McCabe laughs. “We want to keep this going because it’s making the game a lot more interesting. There’s a lot more fumbles. Returners are having a more difficult time, and your guys look like they’re at a carnival having a great time shooting free throws and taking all the stuffed animals.”

Camps like McCabe’s also provide solidarity. Every NFL team has multiple players at nearly every position, but almost every team carries exactly one punter (the exceptions are the Cowboys, Titans, and Chiefs, who list their starting placekickers as backups). The kicker or long snapper on the roster is only small comfort — both can empathize with a punter’s loneliness, but they can’t provide the top-level competition that the rest of their teammates use to thrive.

So NFL punters compete with each other. During the season, they chase each other’s stats, then during the summers, they take retreats together and train. One of the popular destinations is Whitewater, Wisconsin, where Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker who now runs Kohl’s Football Kicking and Punting Camps, hosts some of his former students.

“We just go out and golf, and then we train, we kinda make it like a little vacation in the offseason,” says Bears punter Pat O’Donnell. “It’s great to have guys like Johnny [Hekker] and Ryan Allen, they’re big guys with One on One kicking that I see ... It’s really cool the tight-knit community that we have to bounce ideas off of in the summertime.”

Which isn’t to say that NFL punters are chummy. They’re careful about keeping at least some professional distance. With just 32 jobs available, it behooves them not to give away too many proprietary secrets, lest someone who they thought was their friend uses those secrets against them.

In the most cynical sense, you could think of punter collaboration as an act of keeping enemies closer. The better sense might be scientific colleagues, who use just enough of each other’s research to then go out and apply that knowledge to their own discoveries.

Hekker plays coy when asked if there’s anything he’s working on that he isn’t quite ready to show the world yet.

“Yeah, maybe,” he laughs. “I think that’s where I want to leave that one.”

And that’s perhaps the most special thing about punting as a job. Whereas every other aspect of football is schemed and plotted and planned within an inch of its life by coaches working 20-hour days, punters are more and more frequently being given license to show off what they’ve cooked up in their own laboratories. In that way, punting is antithetical to football itself.

So, here’s the problem with a spiral.

It’s true that in terms of pure distance and hang time, there may be no better punt. A ball hit right on the sweet spot off an NFL leg might go 50 yards with five seconds of hang time, which is plenty for coverage teams to get down the field and in the face of the returner, forcing a fair catch or a big hit and a fumble. The perfect punter would only ever need that one punt if he could hit the sweet spot every time.

Hitting that sweet spot is a bitch, though.

“There’s a spot on the football that’s right in the middle of it that’s about a penny in diameter, and that’s the sweet spot,” says Tom Hackett, a free agent who was drafted by the Jets in 2016. “Anything around there, and you can still turn the ball over, you just won’t get as much out of the ball.

“So a penny isn’t very big, and if you put a penny up against a football, and you throw on top you’ve got a helmet, you’ve got pads on, you’ve got leg pads, you’re in tights, you have to catch the ball. ... It’s hard enough doing it with no rush and no wind and doing it out of your hands without even catching a snap.”

Hackett, an Australian, won the Ray Guy Award as the best punter in college football for Utah in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015. He did it by almost exclusively hitting the drop punt, a kick that should come instinctively to anyone who has grown up playing Aussie Rules football, a mutation of American football and rugby played on an oval field where players “pass” the ball to one another by kicking it on the run while very large people try to deposit them into the ground. The drop punt is the easiest way to get a kick off quickly, accurately, and in any direction.

To do it, a punter takes the hot dog-oriented snaps and points the nose of the football almost straight down. They then kick through the football approximately two inches above the bottom point. (In Aussie Rules, players kick directly on the point, but that ball is more rounded and made of softer leather. Note: DO NOT KICK AN AMERICAN FOOTBALL ON ITS POINT — IT WILL HURT).

When the ball comes off the foot, it flies away, rotating end over end so that the rotation of the ball can act as a lovely backstop should a punter place it just in front of the end zone. More importantly, though, a drop punt’s sweet spot is much, much bigger than a spiral punt’s, which means that a punter’s technique doesn’t have to be flawless to hit it right.

“We would say, ‘Hit me on the tit,’” Hackett says, recalling his days playing Aussie Rules. “You can really pinpoint the football to where you hit somebody right in between the nickels. And professionals back home do it, and they do it every game, and they might do it 10-15 times a game.

“Just my leg swing alone can correct the ball drop and I can still hit what the average eye thinks is a really nice punt.”

The drawback of the drop punt relative to the spiral is distance, yet it’s hard to imagine that stodgy special teams coaches wouldn’t have flocked to the more consistent drop punt if only they had known about it. Instead, the spiral has been the staple punt of American football for decades, and still is, with only a little variation. Yet Hackett calls his punting scheme at Utah — using the drop punt, and not the spiral punt, as its staple — “unbeatable.”

”If they put one returner back there, I don’t care who you put back there — you can put Devin Hester — he’s not going to be able to get to the ball,” Hackett says. “I put it sideline to sideline, he’s going to be running around all night long, and I’m going to win.”

Australians have associated themselves with the NFL for decades, but where once seeing an Australian punter seemed like a novelty, now their presence is a matter of course. Darren Bennett is credited as the first Australian punter to properly introduce the drop punt to the NFL when he entered the league in 1994. He had an 11-year career despite being a 29-year-old rookie when he was signed by the San Diego Chargers. The Australian punter lineage truly took off in the mid-2000s, however, with the likes of the Cowboys’ Matt McBriar, the Jets’ and Cardinals’ Ben Graham, and the Eagles’ Sav Rocca paving the way for today’s starting Aussies.

Nathan Chapman deserves a lot of credit for that. He had a brief NFL dalliance, too, playing in three Packers preseason games in 2004 after an eight-year Aussie Rules career. He never appeared in a regular-season game, but the experience showed him how much potential Australians have in American football. In 2007, Chapman started Prokick Australia, an American football punting service based in Melbourne that helped shape Berry, Johnston, and Dickson.

“There’s a few Aussies in the league who can do all sorts of things,” Chapman says. “I think there’s a little bit more control with the Aussie guys doing it. But there’s a real chance for the game to open up and for someone to throw all the different styles of kicks into a game and reap reward out of it before anyone else cottons on how to do it.”

Prokick Australia claims it has secured 75 American football scholarships or contracts for its students in the United States, including the last five Ray Guy awards. The most recent winner, Dickson, has been one of this NFL season’s most revelatory players at any position. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Seahawks after being named the most valuable player of the Texas Bowl, a game in which he punted 11 times for Texas to place 10 punts inside Missouri’s 15-yard line, seven of which landed inside the 10-yard line, four of which landed inside the 5-yard line, and ZERO of which bounced into the end zone for touchbacks. The Longhorns won, 33-16.

As of publication, Dickson leads the NFL with 44.2-yard net punting average. Out of 60 punts, just two have gone for touchbacks, and just 28 — fewer than half — have been returned.

Beyond the numbers, however, Dickson has also been perhaps the most highlight-worthy punter of the season. In Week 8, he ran an unplanned fake punt from the depths of his own end zone to secure a first down that helped salt away a victory. After the game, he told a Seattle Times reporter: “Yeah, I’ve got big balls. They call me Big Balls Dickson.”

In Week 2, he teased his dropkick prowess, and tweeted that he may have even more innovative ideas in the works, like a “fake punt dropkick field goal.”

Dickson says he was kidding in the tweet — “That’s always a joke that I will say to the coach, like, ‘What do you think? Fake punt, dropkick field goal? What do you think?,’” he laughs — but that shouldn’t discount how much trust the Seahawks have in him to execute whatever they dream up, especially for a rookie.

“Just based on my background of Aussie Rules football, I already have a lot of the different types of kicks in my arsenal, I just didn’t know how they can be used effectively in this game,” Dickson says. “And [special teams coordinator Brian] Schneider has really opened up my mind to what are some of the things that we could use them for.”

The NFL’s slow uptake of Aussie punting ideas might have to do with necessity. The tide in the battle between punters and return men has ebbed and flowed throughout the years but it seemed to turn in returners’ favor during the 10-year period between 2002 and 2012, which saw five of the six best seasons that return men have had bringing back punts for touchdowns in the 16-game era. In 2011, teams allowed 20 punt returns for touchdowns, the second most allowed in a single season, and 18 in 2012, tied for third most.

Since then, punt return touchdowns have steadily declined, all the way down to 10 in 2017. And so far in 2018, punters and coverage teams are on pace to allow just six, the fewest in a single season since 1989.

If the Aussies showed that more could be done with punting than previously thought, Ravens punter Sam Koch showed that innovation was necessary — that it could win football games and extend careers.

The Ravens’ Sunday Night Football matchup against the Steelers in 2014 is considered a seminal event in punting history. Antonio Brown had entered the matchup having returned three punts or kickoffs for touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons, and was third in the league the year before averaging 12.8 yards per return. Koch and his coaches, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and specialists coach Randy Brown, knew they were facing a special challenge, and devised a plan to neutralize one of the best return men in the game.

They decided to simply not give Brown the ball. Koch had begun expanding his arsenal at that point, which included a solid drop punt, and today he can execute perhaps as many different kicks as any player in the NFL. But what makes him particularly good is his ability to torque his hips so that he can punt to the right or left side of the field while facing straight forward, even while punting a spiral. Just by looking at Koch’s torso, it’s impossible to tell which way he’s kicking.

The Ravens got Brown to chase the ball all over the field. Of Koch’s six punts, Brown fair caught four of them and let two others roll out of bounds. None were returned, giving Koch a 42.5 net yard average for the game.

“By doing this and trying to keep it wide totally opposite of where he thinks we were going, we were able to get a lot of yards out of that,” Koch says. “The coaches had such trust in me to go out there and be able to execute it. Which was phenomenal, because nobody really did any of that until maybe two years later.”

Koch entered the NFL in 2006, and at 36 years old he is one of the position’s elder statesmen — only the Chargers’ Donnie Jones and Cardinals’ Andy Lee are older. Discuss punting with a punter and they are almost certain to bring up Koch’s name unprompted.

“He has so many tricks in the bag, it’s really cool to see that you don’t just have to hit the traditional punt each and every time,” O’Donnell says. “You can hit the flip-flop ball, or you can hit the yank punt, or you can hit a knuckleball if you’re trying to cause a fumble.”

O’Donnell continues: “It’s just like that rugby punt, the end-over-end kick, it was unheard of probably 10 years ago and then now everyone is doing it. If you don’t do it, it’s really strange.”

I ask Hekker if he sees something like the Steph Curry Effect happening — that phenomenon when a player so radically succeeds that it reshapes how a generation of athletes trains.

“Right, yeah, there’s definitely — you’ll see a bit of that,” Hekker says. “I’ll get a tweet every now and then of a kid going, ‘Hey I hit a banana punt in a game, check this out, #ForTheBrand.’ It’s kind of a cool movement of awareness for the specialist realm. It’s really cool to kind of see that progression and see young kids taking risks in games and having fun with it.”

#ForTheBrand refers to former Colts punter Pat McAfee’s hashtag campaign to raise awareness for outstanding exploits in the field of punting. His message is part inspirational, part reminder that punters are people, too, and part appreciation for what is too often considered an ugly facet of football.

#ForTheBrand doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s a function of McAfee’s bombastic personality, but also hints at the fact that most punters themselves will admit they sort of fell into the position.

A lot of them, like Koch, come from soccer backgrounds. Others picked up the position because it was the only way they could stay in football. Hekker would have been a quarterback if he had had his way. Marquette King was a wide receiver at Fort Valley State but couldn’t get on the field, so he started punting as a way to keep his scholarship.

Even the Aussies don’t see much glamor in it.

“As a junior coming up you just get six snaps, it’s not really that fun,” Dickson says. “I just don’t think it’s really going to take off in popularity unless it completely changes into something else than what we’re seeing now.”

Punters do care about the health of the profession, however. And there’s at least some groundswell at the high school level — McCabe, Chapman, and a host of punting clinicians can attest to that. They’re all evangelists for the position. The message isn’t necessarily that more young athletes should aspire to be a punters. But if they do, they’ll find much more depth to the sport than they may have imagined.

“I’m constantly out there speaking to other kids, whether they’re going to college or whatever,” Koch says. “Field goals have a lot more pressure, but punting is a lot harder because you’re trying to hit a moving ball every time. And when you have all the variables, and the wind blowing right to left, and the steps, and the field ... it’s quite an art form.”

Where that art form goes is difficult to predict — physics and the human leg have only so much dexterity. But there’s potential. Take one of Koch’s most devious punts, which he has called a “hook,” but we might more accurately call an “S-bend.” It moves like the letter ‘S’ through the air, curving toward the sideline like the banana, but then flattening out, dropping to the ground, and rolling down the sideline after tricking the returner into thinking it would go out of bounds. Imagine if someone of Koch’s technical prowess had been empowered to experiment sooner in his career? What other letters of the alphabet could punters spell with a football?

”I’ve trained with some young kids that are hitting punts their sophomore or junior year of high school that I didn’t hit until my senior year in college,” Hekker says. “Kids’ legs are getting stronger, their training is getting smarter. The coaches I work with, Coach McCabe and him and his group, they’re turning out some beasts.”

Another thing to consider as punters improve: The more accurate and dangerous a punter is, the more effective trickery becomes. Say a team puts two players back to return a punt to counter a punter’s pinpoint directional kicking. That means there is one fewer player near the line of scrimmage to defend a fake run or pass play.

Or, say a player is able to master a dropkick — that means that a field-goal kicking team doesn’t need a holder and can put an extra blocker or pass catcher on the field. Better yet, teams can just let Aussie kickers do what they’ve grown up doing. That’s what Eastern Kentucky did in 2013 when it allowed Berry to complete a pass with his foot (note: the punt has to be caught behind the line of scrimmage in order to be a legal pass).

None of these tricks can ever fully make up for the fact that, most of the time, punting is a sign that your team sucks. Punting means that your team’s offense couldn’t gain 10 measly yards in three tries, and has decided to surrender fourth down to turn the ball over. Being a punter means that everyone — your coaches, your teammates, even you, yourself — wants to see as little of you as possible.

Yet punters tend to hold on to punting even after it’s gone, which suggests there’s something intrinsically satisfying about it. Hackett now coaches punting as a stateside extension of Prokick Australia, and says he keeps a stopwatch by his couch so that he can clock hang time as he watches football on TV. And he still punts, too, because he likes “how hard it is.”

“When I go out and punt, I don’t even hit the drop punt,” Hackett says. “The spiral, to me, is what I love. And it’s weird because it’s what I’m the worst at. But it’s just so hard to do, and it’s addictive.”

Even accepting that no one wants to see their punter shouldn’t obscure what’s happening in plain sight. Specialists are making themselves visible by being weapons. Their secret, which should be more obvious than it seems, is that progress feels good.

“It’s an expectation — reality starting to become the expectation,” Hekker says. “Every year you see a benchmark or some new number that a punter is able to obtain, and that just becomes the goal of every other punter in the NFL. So it’s just collectively raising the bar together as a position to where we know that hey, that’s possible.”

Punting is cooler than you may think, but what you think doesn’t really matter here. Punting will keep evolving regardless of whether it is ever properly appreciated in its time. Its mechanisms are self-sufficient, powered by football players who, more than football players at any other position, work much like artists do. They present the world a singular, ever-more refined expression of themselves, unable to know whether they’ll succeed, and so close to failure at all times. Watch a punter hit a ball into the stands, and you feel like you know a bit more about his psyche. Watch him hit a near-perfect banana punt to the 5-yard-line several years later and you know his story.

Punting is a simple idea — kick a ball as far as you can and hope your opponent can’t return it — but if you feel lost in its multitudes, that’s OK. Like art, punting should be appreciated viscerally, too. Just ask a punter to name his favorite kick. It’s not a drop, banana, or knuckle.

“A bomb,” Hekker says. “80 yards. No return.”

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