Competence comes with practice. Great writers write a lot, lawyers can count on reading a lot of briefs and milkmen know more about the upkeep and care of milk than anyone on the planet because it is the source of their living. None of them will be counted on to, at a moment's notice, perform surgery, apprehend a burglar or deliver non-dairy products. They would do an awful job.
Punters punt ... a lot. They're really good at it. But when they are asked to do other football things, it looks something like this:
No respect for punters. pic.twitter.com/YITRObsTwG— Steve Noah (@Steve_OS) September 7, 2014
Kickers made 77 in-game tackles last season on 6,108 combined punts, kickoffs and attempted field goals and extra points. That means that once every 79 times foot met ball, a kicker or punter was forced to make the same play that some linebackers are asked to make a dozen times per game.
Shaun Suisham of the Pittsburgh Steelers was a relative special teams ace last season, racking up seven tackles among 157 combined field goal, extra point and kickoff attempts. That is an impressive feat, but also instructive -- the Steelers had the second-worst kickoff touchback percentage in the NFL last season at 27.91 percent. The worst belonged to Nick Novak and the San Diego Chargers at 17.65 percent. Novak had the second-most tackles among kickers with five.
Poor Spencer Lanning, the man who took a flying Antonio Brown karate kick to the face in Week 1, is still waiting to make his first career tackle. Brown was hauled down by one of Lanning's teammates before being assessed an obvious penalty. Though Lanning was flattened, he managed to knock the Steelers back 15 yards by his ineptitude, so technically he succeeded. Like sledgehammering a hole in your roof and calling it a skylight, Lanning accomplished what he set out to do, but in the loosest terms possible.
At least he has a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Wait, wait, wait... When did this happen?!? pic.twitter.com/SzU9wDVx23— Spencer Lanning (@LanningSpencer) September 7, 2014
Lanning's response was typical of kickers who try, successfully or not, to do things not found in the normal job description. Yes, kickers do their job with the full recognition that they could be barreled back by a man whose job is to do just that. But if kickers fail to make a touchdown-saving tackle, fans usually find it within themselves to forgive them, for the same reason they would ask leniency in the same situation: they're not supposed to be good at it. Whether they succeed or fail, what is most amazing is that they got to try in the first place.
"You hesitate, he's going to dip on you"
Let's backtrack a bit. Not all punters and kickers are terrible at doing things that aren't punting and kicking. Coach Mike McCabe is happy to tell you which guys he thinks can lay the wood.
"[Ryan] Succop hits well. Ryan Allen does. [Johnny] Hekker does, just because they're strong and quick," McCabe says. "Ryan Quigley from the Jets is very impressive. He'll hit you like a ton of bricks."
McCabe is the founder of One On One Kicking, one of the best training camps for football specialists in the country. The program has helped place 13 active players in the NFL, including four rookies: Chicago Bears punter Pat O'Donnell, Detroit Lions kicker Nate Freese, Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos and Philadelphia Eagles kicker Cody Parkey. Part of One On One's regimen includes hitting drills. McCabe makes his athletes weave around body bags before trying to tackle and wrap up a big, bouncy exercise ball.
"People think kickers and punters don't work out; well actually they do on a continuous basis," McCabe says. "When I have them training here in Florida from January until March, and really they are in an environment of building their bodies to be quicker, faster, stronger. A lot of these players are benching well over 350 pounds. Look at Pat O'Donnell, he did 225 what, 21 or 22 times?"
23 times, actually.
And every specialist knows the protocol for the rare, but perhaps inevitable moment when he will have to make a play.
"It happens; you just have to be prepared for it. I always look for the top of their helmet, because he's going to be the fastest one moving out of everyone else," McCabe says. "It's almost like a shark fin going through the water when they're moving quick.
"You're looking with your peripheral vision and you're seeing, 'OK, there's six slow-moving bodies and there's one moving fast, that's my guy.' You just got to make sure that you know your surroundings on your left or right side that you're not going to get ear-holed."
That means a fair bit of film study so that the punter or kicker can identify which opposing blocker will be tasked with taking him out of the play. As soon as the ball leaves the specialist's foot, he becomes a safety, protecting his area and making sure he is unencumbered in case he needs to enter the scrum. Then if the play presents itself to be made, you can't back up like Lanning did. You have to attack.
"You hesitate, he's going to dip on you," McCabe says.
The protocol for a blocked kick is much simpler.
"Go get it," McCabe says. "There's no strategy, you gotta get it."
No kicker or punter wants to be forced into an extenuating circumstance -- "For me when I played as an athlete, I know for one thing that you're not happy about it," McCabe laughs -- but they will be quick to tell you their stories of battle.
"Western Kentucky. They had a punt returner who was really good," McCabe says. "It was a 52-yard punt, probably a 4.8 or 4.9 [seconds of hang time], directional left. Back then we used the old tight, tight 'T' formation, where you have one guy in the A and B gap and one personal protector -- it wasn't like the pro formation they use today or spread in college, so it's harder for your guys to go out and spread because it's grouped together.
"And he took off to the opposite sideline. I removed a linebacker that I knew was going to be coming after me. I took him down and went right at the punt returner. He tried to make his little move and it didn't work. [laughs] I just threw my shoulder into him and knocked him out of bounds."
Great moments in kickers doing non-kicker things:
Garo Yepremian throws horrid pass
Yepremian made one of the all-time doofiest blunders in Super Bowl history. Miami was up 14-0 over Washington in Super Bowl VII, and attempting to go up 17-0 with a 41-yard field goal. Yepremian's kick was blocked, however, and instead of falling down on the ball as it tumbled back toward him, he picked it up and tried to throw. "Tried" is the operative word. The ball slipped out of his hand when he brought his arm forward to pass, and as Yepremian tried to regain control he accidentally bobbled the ball into the waiting arms of Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards for a touchdown.
It's OK, though, Yepremian was able to turn the moment into a life-changing positive! Via the Huffington Post:
"I honestly felt as if my life was over," says Yepremian. "I never, ever had been disappointed like that in my life. Goodness, I felt as if it was the end. Norm Evans, the spiritual leader of the Dolphins, he said, 'don't worry, God is with you.' That was the best thing that ever happened to me, to have that encouragement from a friend. If the other team scored, and it would have went to overtime, that would've haunted me for the rest of my life."
Pat McAfee levels Trindon Holliday
McAfee soared where so many had floundered. With Trindon Holliday speeding up the sideline towards a certain touchdown last season -- that's former Olympic hopeful sprinter Trindon Holliday, mind you -- McAfee came out of nowhere to deck the little fella at the sideline. It wasn't pretty -- McAfee sort of forgets that he is allowed to use his arms and takes Holliday to the ground with what looks like a powerful nuzzle. It should also be pointed out that McAfee had a 63-pound weight advantage.
But the NFL was impressed, so much so that it "randomly" selected McAfee for a steroid test the day after the game.
Brian Moorman leveled by Sean Taylor
McAfee's hit may have been karmic retribution for what Sean Taylor did to Brian Moorman. The former Buffalo Bills punter was a Madden favorite for being uncharacteristically speedy, and thus one of the best players in the game with whom to run a fake punt. In perhaps a bit of fan service, the AFC dialed up a fake punt for Moorman during the 2006 Pro Bowl. The result was one of the most vicious hits one may ever see.
Thankfully, Moorman was able to get up. Via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post:
To his eternal credit, Moorman immediately popped up off the ground and ran straight over to Taylor, just to let him know he wasn't still on the turf. "Nice hit," Moorman said he told Taylor, who was too busy celebrating to respond. They never managed to discuss the hit.
Moorman, of course, got a bit of playful kidding from teammates when they gathered for offseason workouts. "I'm like, 'What were you thinking, bro?'" Greer remembered telling the punter. "That's going to be a play that we'll definitely remember."
Naturally, the play has since taken on a life of its own. Someone set it to Jim Ross, of course:
Johnny Hekker completes TWO passes during a game ...
... and may be the only primarily-special teams player to ever complete multiple passes off fakes in a single game. The last time a full-time kicker got such extensive action as a quarterback may have been 1967, when the New York Jets' Jim Turner went 2-for-4 passing in place of Joe Namath late during a blowout win over the Miami Dolphins. He would throw just one more pass across a 16-year career. (New York may have been thumbing its nose at a rival that day.)
Hekker's performance may be one of the proudest a punter has ever had. Perhaps even more so because the St. Louis Rams punter did it against the division rival San Francisco 49ers. It takes a lot to impress even Jim Harbaugh. Via the Sacramento Bee:
"That takes a lot of gumption to do it," said Jim Harbaugh of executing fake when the punter is inside his own end zone. "And they did it, backed up as far as they were. And they executed it very well."
The second fake, which took place on 4th-and-8 from the Rams' own 33-yard line, extended a fourth-quarter touchdown drive in a game that finished in a 24-24 tie.
Hekker discussed the play in a Reddit AMA from February 2013 and touched on what makes a punter doing anything other than kicking the wind out of pseudo-leather bag so special:
I was just thinking, "This is going to work just like in practice ... don't you dare mess up the throw!" Punters only get chances if the coaches know you can complete it!
Their opportunities are so precious that they are all marvelous, whatever the result.