NFL punters: To infinity and beyond

Since they just let Ray Guy into the Hall of Fame — and since the name of the game, after all, is football — why don’t we kick around the subject of punting for a while? So much has been made in recent years about the increasing infallibility of kickers, but punters, in my mind, have become just as proficient. It just doesn’t show up, in bright lights, on the scoreboard.

What steered me onto this topic was my growing awareness of Tress Way, the Redskins’ undrafted rookie from Oklahoma, who has been booting the bejabbers out of the ball. Through

Rookie Tress Way

Rookie Tress Way

six games, Way is averaging a league-leading 51.2 yards with a 41.9 net. That first figure, if it holds up, would be second best in NFL history, behind only Sammy Baugh’s 51.4 in 1940 (which was inflated by a fair number of quick kicks).

Way, moreover, has been remarkably consistent, averaging 47 yards or better in each of the first six games. Only three other punters since 1960 have done that — Shane Lechler (twice), Donnie Jones and Mat McBriar.

It’s stunning, really, how the performance of punters has improved in the past decade. The 2007 season was the turning point. That was the first time a punter had a net average of 40 yards for a full season — Lechler and Andy Lee both did, in fact — and seven that year had a gross average of 45 or more. Since then, the numbers have just gone up and up.

Consider: From 1940 (when the league first started keeping the stat) to 2006, an NFL/AFL punter averaged 45 yards gross for a season exactly 100 times (minimum: 20 punts). In the seven-year stretch from 2007 to 2013, it happened almost as often: 95 times. Two seasons ago, 21 punters averaged 45 yards gross and 15 averaged 40 yards net. That’s ridiculous — as the following chart shows.

NFL PUNTING PERFORMANCE, 1940-2013

Years 45 Gross 40 Net
1940-49         9 NA
1950-59         8 NA
1960-69         25 NA
1970-79         5 NA
1980-89         6 NA
1990-99         30 1*
2000-09         45 13
2010-13         67 42
2014         14 13

*Punted for only seven games. Note: Net average wasn’t computed until 1991.

Heck, the Colts’ Pat McAfee is netting 44.8 yards this season. If that were merely his gross average, It would be good enough to lead the league every year from 1974 to 1980.

There are all sorts of reasons why punters are kicking the ball to the moon these days. For one thing, some of them are bigger than their predecessors. (Let’s not forget: 5-foot-9, 168-pound quarterback Eddie LeBaron doubled as a punter for the Redskins in the ’50s.)

As Danny Smith, the Steelers’ special teams coach, once told me, “When you’ve got a big, strong guy, their misses aren’t [usually] terrible punts. They don’t kill you. Sometimes, if you have little guys — and everybody misses ’em — their misses can hurt you, field position-wise.”

There’s also been an influx of Australian punters, guys like McBriar and Darren Bennett, both of whom made the Pro Bowl, as well as Sav Rocca and others. “That [Australian rules] game is a kicking game,” Smith said. “You’ve got guys kicking on the run, booting the ball from weird positions, kicking under pressure . . . and developing tremendous leg strength. Then they get over here, of course, and it’s all about perfect drops and [staying] stationary, that kind of thing.”

Then, too, coaches seem increasingly inclined to let punters boot the ball as far as they can, instead of focusing on hang time or trying to angle it one way or another. Throw in refinements in technique, which are always being made, and you have Tress Way, a punter who averaged 44 yards for his college career, averaging 51.2 in his first six games as a pro — and nobody blinking an eye.

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, NFL.com.