Punters don’t win MVP. To see just how little the NFL thinks of punters, look no further than the Hall of Fame, where only one punter, Ray Guy, is currently enshrined. Part of this stems from general laziness on the part of voters, as the metrics required to truly understand the value in punters require much more than an eyeballing of counting stats such as yards or punts. Britton Colquitt’s performance in Super Bowl 50 was nothing short of extraordinary, both by visual and statistical measures. Given how the game played out, there is a legitimate case for Britton Colquitt as Super Bowl MVP.
Get your laughs, shrugs, and thoughts about click-bait out of the way right now.
This game was decided by special teams and defense.
The prowess of the Denver defense has been widely lauded, and rightly so, as Von Miller and the rest of the Broncos combined to shut down a Panthers offense that had put up 31.3 points per game despite lacking any true stars aside from Cam Newton. But the job that Britton Colquitt and the Denver punt unit did was equally impressive, if not more.
The basic stats tell part of the story. Colquitt punted eight times for 367 yards, an average of 45.8 yards per punt. Stripping out a garbage-time 28-yarder with just 0:58 remaining in the game, Colquitt averaged 48.4 yards per punt, all on open-field punts. This is good for a target distance punted (TDP) of 101%, well above Colquitt’s 2015 average of 95% in these situations. Colquitt’s hang time over the course of the game was outstanding as well, averaging 4.65 seconds of hang per punt compared to an average of 4.38 seconds in the regular season. Clearly, he was hitting the ball with more power and conviction than he had all year.
But the real story lies not just in how far Colquitt punted, but in how accurately he punted and how he was able to limit the ability of Ted Ginn, Jr., whose 10.3-yard average was good for fifth in the NFL in 2015. Ginn racked up this yardage despite lacking a return longer than 37 yards this season, while every other returner in the top 12 had at least one return of 58 yards or greater. More than anything else, this indicates Ginn’s consistent ability to produce large chunks of return yards.
To anyone who was laughing earlier, here’s how good Colquitt was: Ginn gained just two yards on the eight Denver punts, and was able to return only three of them at all. To put this in perspective, there were only 11 games all season in which a punt return unit averaged fewer than one yard per return attempt over three or more returns.
11 games out of 256.
That immediately places Colquitt and the Broncos in the top 4% of all punt unit performances in 2015. To do so against a unit as consistently effective as Carolina’s return team requires a performance so good that it must be considered one of the keys to victory in this low-scoring affair.
Here is how Colquitt did it.
After scoring a field goal on their first drive, Denver goest three-and-out on their second attempt, sending out Colquitt to punt from their own 34-yard line:With the ball planted on the inside of the left hash, Colquitt aligns in the middle of the hash and in line with the left foot of the long snapper Aaron Brewer (#46). This indicates a punt to the right side, as it gives Colquitt an angle to the middle of the formation that will allow him to target the right side of the field without changing his leg swing or motion; his approach back towards the center of the field will be all that is necessary to angle the ball to the right.
Colquitt is now inside the hash as he has properly angled his steps. The Broncos linemen also release to the right side, clearly showing the intent on this punt.
Colquitt’s normally-outstanding directional control is slightly off here, as Ginn catches what turns out to be a 50-yard punt midway between the numbers and the hash at his own 16-yard line. Ginn accelerates to his right, trying to use his speed to get around the corner:
However, Kayvon Webster (#36) tracks down Ginn and tackles him at the Carolina 15-yard line after a loss of one-yard on the return.
The ineptitude of the Denver offense continues on their next drive, going three-and-out once again after losing two yards over the course of their “drive.” Colquitt comes on to punt from the Broncos 11-yard line:
This punt shows a much better angle for Colquitt, with his hips angled more steeply towards the sideline as he targets the left side of the field. Once again, Colquitt gets outstanding hang on his boot, the ball floating for 4.79 seconds before being caught by Ginn outside the left numbers after a 47-yard flight:
Ginn is tackled by Corey Nelson (#52) for a two-yard loss, but an illegal block during the return negated this, with Ginn being credited instead with no return as the penalty was enforced at the spot of the foul.
Another Denver possession, another three-and-out, this time going seven yards in reverse and setting up 4th-and-17 from their own 13-yard line. After a penalty on the Broncos negates a 52-yard bomb from Colquitt, he lines up to punt, this time from his own 8-yard line:
Colquitt sets up in his end zone lined up on Brewer’s left foot, as we saw in his first punt of the day, indicating a kick to the right. After a clean snap, Colquitt punts the ball just 43 yards this time, but his placement is perfect:
Aiming for the right sideline, the ball lands almost perfectly on-target, preventing any return from Ginn and netting the full 43-yard distance for Denver. While the power here is more indicative of what Colquitt had done during the regular season, his phenomenal placement keeps Ginn from even touching the ball.
Denver’s next two possessions see them pick up a field goal set-up by the field position from a 61-yard punt return that made yet another three-and-out seem better than it was, and then a Peyton Manning interception that kills the only real drive Denver had put together all half. Denver gets the ball back with 3:05 remaining in the second quarter, only to go three-and-out yet again and send Colquitt out for his fourth punt of the first half:
From the Denver 28-yard line, Colquitt sets up to kick to his right again, once again aligning on the left foot of Brewer. The operation is clean, and he launches a 53-yarder that lands on the right numbers at the Carolina 19-yard line after 4.56 seconds of majestic flight:
Ginn, with Denver’s right gunner bearing down on him, fair catches the ball and is unable to advance it.
After picking up another field goal on their first drive of the second half, Denver returns to its roots with a three-and-out that gives Colquitt another chance to show off his skills. Setting up on the left foot of Brewer, Colquitt once again targets the right side of the field from the Broncos 15-yard line:
This was Colquitt’s worst punt of the day, as it hangs for just 4.32 seconds, giving Ginn an opportunity for a return. While Colquitt had carried the unit all day, it was time for the coverage to return the favor:
Ginn catches the ball just inside the numbers. Ahead of him, the Panthers set up a return to his right. However, the Broncos do a tremendous job of closing space quickly as well as displaying the awareness to understand where the blocks are coming from, and close off his route to the right:
Ginn cuts back to his left, looking to get up the sideline. Denver, however, quickly pursues and snuffs out any chance of a big play, tackling Ginn after a three-yard gainand seeing a 15-yard penalty assessed on the Panthers for an illegal block on the play to boot. Another win for the Broncos.
Denver sees a Manning fumble squander the next possession before once again returning to its comfort zone with a three-and-out that sends Colquitt out once more. From the Broncos 28-yard line, Colquitt again targets the right side:
Another punt, another lack of return yardage from the Panthers.
Colquitt’s seventh punt begins in what should now be familiar fashion: another three-and-out for the Broncos. Trotting onto the field with just a 16-10 lead, Colquitt needed another blast to ensure Carolina would have to work for any points they might muster:
The familiar alignment off the left foot of Brewer is present yet again as Colquitt takes aim at the right sideline. He unleashes what might be his magnum opus and crowning achievement of this game: a 48-yard bomb with 4.82 seconds of hang time that lands on the right sideline, yet again preventing a Ginn return:
After a Von Miller sack gives Denver the ball at the Carolina 4-yard line, the Broncos offense manages a gritty 4-yard touchdown drive largely made possible by the tremendous punt from Colquitt.
While Colquitt had one more punt after the game was no longer in doubt, his performance over the first 55 minutes took a strong return man and completely neutralized him. In a game where offense was at a premium, Colquitt, on every play in which he was involved, made the first touch on which the Panthers could generate yardage into a non-factor. While Miller had a tremendous game and the two strip-sacks by the Denver defense played a huge role in this game, Colquitt’s performance is easily among the most valuable in this Super Bowl.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.