Punters are a misunderstood breed. Many analysts have struggled to adequately measure punting performance. Usage of statistics such as gross average, net average, and yards per return do not capture the impact a punter has on the game. Field position, situation, and coverage are all critical. By focusing purely on distance control – how far, how high, how accurately he hits the ball – Chuck Zodda shows what makes the perfect punter.
One of the biggest problems with trying to utilize analytics in football is that there are very few truly independent events. Without knowing the exact play call, individual responsibilities, and specific techniques demanded by a coaching staff, it can be difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for success and failure on each play.
One area where it is possible to see these independent events is in the kicking game, but available statistics are generally lazy and sloppy. Gross punting average takes into account how far a punter kicks the ball, but does not factor in that a punter may only be trying to strike the ball 30 yards to avoid a touchback. Net average does not tell us whether a long return was because of a punter kicking to the wrong side of the field, missed tackles, or another unexplained phenomena. These are statistics that are consumed and spit out by broadcasters and journalists to tell fans which punter is best at a job that many people even closely associated with football do not understand.
So let’s start from the beginning.
A punter has control over three things – how far he kicks the ball, how high he kicks the ball, and what direction he kicks the ball. His specific level of control depends on his talent, but it is clear that these variables can be manipulated by how he strikes the ball. While height (hang time) and direction (directional punting) both require video analysis to determine strength in those areas, distance control can be easily measured with some basic data analysis.
Punts are generally divided into open-field (between a team’s 1 and 40-yard lines) and pin-deep (a team’s own 41-yard line and forward). While the goal on both kicks is to change field position, each presents unique circumstances that change the type of punt demanded. Open-field punts allow the specialist to prioritize maximum distance, attempting to clear the ball as far away from a team’s end zone as possible. Pin-deep situations require a punter to drop the ball as close to the opponent’s 10-yard line as possible so as to pick up the most distance possible without a touchback.
So who does it best? Here are the statistics for punters in open-field situations in 2015:
|Open Field Punts||Open Field Gross Avg.||% of League Avg.|
|Brett Kern, Ten||63||51.6||108%|
|Matthew Bosher, Atl||36||50.7||106%|
|Matt Darr, Mia||61||50.6||105%|
|Andy Lee, Cle||44||50.6||105%|
|Johnny Hekker, Stl||71||50.3||105%|
|Jon Ryan, Sea||36||50.3||105%|
|Pat McAfee, Ind||60||49.9||104%|
|Bryan Anger, Jax||55||49.8||104%|
|Shane Lechler, Hou||67||49.5||103%|
|Dustin Colquitt, KC||42||49.3||103%|
|Ryan Allen, NE||50||48.8||102%|
|Sam Koch, Bal||52||48.7||101%|
|Colton Schmidt, Buf||59||48.5||101%|
|Kevin Huber, Cin||44||48.4||101%|
|Sam Martin, Det||57||48.4||101%|
|Chris Jones, Dal||50||48||100%|
|Donnie Jones, Phi||62||47.8||100%|
|Tress Way, Was||46||47.6||99%|
|Mike Scifres, SD||50||47.6||99%|
|Brad Wing, NYG||44||47.5||99%|
|Marquette King, Oak||50||47.3||99%|
|Thomas Morstead, NO||42||46.7||97%|
|Pat O’Donnell, Chi||43||46.2||96%|
|Britton Colquitt, Den||57||45.5||95%|
|Jordan Berry, Pit||31||45.5||95%|
|Bradley Pinion, SF||68||45.3||94%|
|Tim Masthay, GB||58||44.8||93%|
|Jake Schum, TB||36||44.5||93%|
|Ryan Quigley, NYJ||50||44.4||93%|
|Jeff Locke, Min||39||44.3||92%|
|Drew Butler, Ari||36||43.7||91%|
(NOTE: These statistics take into account only punts from a team’s 1-yard line to 40-yard line)
NFL punters averaged 48.0 yards per punt in open-field situations in 2015. The far-right column shows how individual punters performed compared to this average. Drew Butler of the Arizona Cardinals saw the lowest average yardage in these situations, picking up just 91% of the league mark on open-field punts, while Brett Kern of the Tennessee Titans had the best mark in the league at 108% of the average distance covered. Upper-echelon mainstays such as Jon Ryan, Pat McAfee, Johnny Hekker, and Sam Koch also clock in with above-average marks in this facet.
But the big leg is not everything when it comes to punting. How do NFL punters stack up when it comes to distance-control in pin-deep situations? There is no perfect way to measure this, but touchback percentage on pin-deep punts gives us a very good barometer for whether a punter has the ability to drop a kick at the 10-yard line.
Here are the statistics for pin-deep situations in 2015:
|Pin-Deep Punts||Pin-Deep TB||Pin-Deep TB%|
|Jordan Berry, Pit||28||1||4%|
|Brett Kern, Ten||25||1||4%|
|Ryan Allen, NE||24||1||4%|
|Sam Martin, Det||23||1||4%|
|Chris Jones, Dal||19||1||5%|
|Andy Lee, SF||25||2||8%|
|Mike Scifres, SD||23||2||9%|
|Pat O’Donnell, Chi||28||3||11%|
|Jon Ryan, Sea||32||4||13%|
|Matt Bosher, Atl||23||3||13%|
|Marquette King, Oak||34||5||15%|
|Jeff Locke, Min||27||4||15%|
|Britton Colquitt, Den||27||4||15%|
|Jake Schum, TB||20||3||15%|
|Dustin Colquitt, KC||33||5||15%|
|Ryan Quigley, NYJ||26||4||15%|
|Pat McAfee, Ind||25||4||16%|
|Bryan Anger, Jax||25||4||16%|
|Colton Schmidt, Buf||23||4||17%|
|Kevin Huber, Cin||25||5||20%|
|Brad Wing, NYG||30||6||20%|
|Johnny Hekker, Stl||25||5||20%|
|Brad Nortman, Car||19||4||21%|
|Tim Masthay, GB||23||5||22%|
|Bradley Pinion, SF||23||5||22%|
|Donnie Jones, Phi||26||6||23%|
|Drew Butler, Ari||25||6||24%|
|Sam Koch, Bal||22||6||27%|
|Tress Way, Was||25||7||28%|
|Thomas Morstead, NO||14||4||29%|
|Matt Darr, Mia||31||9||29%|
|Shane Lechler, Oak||28||9||32%|
(NOTE: These statistics take into account only punts from a team’s 41-yard line and forward)
Four punters tied for the lowest percentage of touchbacks on these kicks – Jordan Berry, Ryan Allen, Sam Martin, and Kern. Berry, however, had more punts from this distance, making him the league-leader for lowest touchback percentage on pin-deep punts. On the other end of the spectrum, Shane Lechler, traditionally one of the league leaders in gross average, shows an inability to control his big leg in these situations, notching touchbacks on 32% of his punts in pin-deep scenarios. Koch, despite his unparalleled directional punting game, struggles on shorter punts, with 27% of his kicks in these situations going for touchbacks.
When looking at the combined data in these two game situations, five punters stand out as having the best overall distance control, regardless of field position:
|Open-Field Dist. Compared to NFL||Pin-Deep TB%|
|Brett Kern, Ten||108%||4%|
|Ryan Allen, NE||102%||4%|
|Sam Martin, Det||101%||4%|
|Chris Jones, Dal||100%||5%|
|Andy Lee, SF||105%||8%|
Kern, despite lacking acclaim around the league, has had an outstanding season in this aspect of the game. Allen, while still growing into himself as a directional punter and working to build consistency across a full season, has been very strong here as well, and veterans Martin, Chris Jones, and Andy Lee round out the top five distance-control punters of 2015.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.