Truth in Numbers: How Punting Statistics Can Lie

Punting statistics are one of the most misunderstood in football. The terms “gross punting average” and “net punting average” are thrown around as measures of punters’ abilities, when in reality, the picture is much more complicated. Both of those statistics are significantly impacted by field position, and also fail to take into account hang time and the directional ability of a punter. Target Distance Punted (TDP) helps incorporate the effect of field position, but hang time and punt accuracy must be factored in as well. Chuck Zodda explains how traditional punting statistics can obscure the truth that shows up on tape.

If a Baltimore resident perused the box score in the Baltimore Sun on Monday, September 12, 2016, they would likely be drawn first to punting statistics, as nearly every NFL fan is. Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch’s second punt would look very, very bad at first glance: 47-yard gross distance, 26-yard net distance. The gross distance is relatively uninspiring, as it does not pass the magical 50-yard distance that makes the average fan swoon over punters, but the 26-yard net distance is truly putrid by nearly any standard.

This is exactly why these stats are a terrible way to measure punter performance.

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Using Target Distance Punted

The key problem with gross and net punting average is they are largely based on the field position from which a punter kicks. If a punter is punting from his own 10-yard line on a repeated basis, he has a much greater opportunity to produce long punts than on whose team stalls out every drive at the opposing 45-yard line. Yet this does not show up in the box score, nor in the discussion of punters and their effectiveness.

Target Distance Punted (TDP) corrects for that by setting an ideal landing point for a punt. For kicks known as open-field punts (behind a team’s own 40-yard line), the target distance is the average NFL punt in open-field situations, since the risk of a touchback is minimal, and long punts are encouraged. For pin-deep punts (from a team’s 41-yard line and forward), the ideal landing point is the opposing 10-yard line, as shorter punts give an opponent an advantage in field position, and longer punts have a danger of bouncing into the end zone for a touchback.

On his second punt of the game, Koch trots out to the Ravens 47-yard line. This means he has exactly 43 yards to the Buffalo Bills 10-yard line, which makes his target distance 43 yards. By striking a 46-yard punt in this situation, Koch is actually showcasing a stronger punt than if he hit a 40-yarder that left distance on the table, as well as a 55-yarder that bounced into the end zone. The TDP on this punt is actually 107%, showing Koch produced 7% more gross yardage than expected in the situation.

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Net Average Is Not About The Punter

Now that we have addressed the situation with regard to gross punting yardage, net yardage must be discussed as well. The prevailing wisdom behind the use of net yardage is that it helps to give a better picture of how a punter works with his unit to negate an opponent’s returns. In reality, net punting average can have absolutely nothing to do with a punter’s performance, as the example here shows.

Koch lines up 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage at the Baltimore 47-yard line:

Punting Statistics

He is directly in line with the left guard, which for most punters, would indicate a punt to the right, as an approach in this direction would lead him directly behind the center of protection. However, Koch is arguably the most-skilled punter in the NFL in terms of his directional abilities, not only able to kick the ball to either side of the field, but also featuring a wide array of different kicks that feature different motion while traveling downfield. So Koch’s aim, unlike other NFL punters, is not predictable simply by his initial alignment.

Long-snapper Morgan Cox fires the snap back, with Koch receiving it and preparing to kick:

Punting StatisticsAs Koch starts his drop, the ball’s nose is pointing down and away from his body. While nose-down punting has become popular in recent years as a way to control distance in pin-deep situations, punters typically keep the nose pointed straight forward or slightly in. The angle of the ball in this situation shows Koch is planning to strike the ball differently, even as his initial steps take him back toward the center of protection.

Rather than pushing directly through the ball, Koch yanks his hips left, pounding the ball toward the left sideline. This is not a mistake, as the right gunner crosses the field from the outset, with this area being the target all along. The ball travels downfield, and Bills returner Brandon Tate prepares to receive it:

Punting StatisticsTate is midway between the numbers and the sideline, with the right gunner nearing the inside of the numbers. But the left gunner, rookie cornerback Tavon Young (#36, red circle), stays too wide to make a play on Tate. Gunners are taught to aim for the opposite shoulder to stay centered on a returner and tackle securely. Here, Young is nearly three yards outside Tate, which gives the returner a clear lane directly upfield, even though Young has managed to get downfield in coverage.

The result is unsurprising:

Punting StatisticsTate blows past Young, and now has a clear seam up the sideline. He picks up 21 yards on the return, turning a beautiful 46-yard punt with 4.46 seconds of hang time outside the numbers into a mere 26-yard net change in field position.

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Koch did his job the exact way he was supposed to here. But neither gross nor net distance reflect that. Proper evaluation requires proper statistics and methods, and in the case of punters, the basic statistics most fans are familiar with are simply not enough. Punters are people, too. They deserve stats that prove it.

Follow @ITP_ChuckZ on Twitter. Check out his other work here, an Why Graham Gano missed a last-second FG, an under-appreciated great NFL kicker, and his inquiry into the mechanics of why Dan Carpenter keeps missing FGs.

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All images courtesy of NFL Game Pass.

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