This Sports Illustrated article on NFL punters is well-worth reading. Two things that the article alludes to but doesn’t make a big deal about:
- Punters, in addition to booting the ball away and trying to pin down the other team’s defense on fourth down, also often hold for the placekicker on extra points and field goals. Not only can a dropped or bad hold lose games (more high-pressure stakes for already high-pressure players) but an athletic punter gives you a lot more options for fake kicks. (Another reason why a lot of punters were high-school or college quarterbacks.)
- For NFL players, punters have amazing longevity. I was amazed that Ray Guy, a legendary punter I remember watching in the mid-80s, when I first started watching football as a kid, is now 60 years old, and that Giants punter Jeff Feagles is still one of the best in the league at 43.
This last point, though, made me think about this point Malcolm Gladwell made in his exchange with Bill Simmons, about concussions, other head impacts, and the reduction in life expectancy for most other NFL players:
Early in the 20th century, there was a big movement to ban college football because of a rash of deaths on the field, and one of the innovations that saved the game was the legalization of the forward pass. What people realized was the more you open the game up, and make the principal point of physical contact the one-on-one tackle in the open field, the safer the game becomes. Keep in mind, the forward pass at the time was a radical step. Lots of diehard types stood up at the time to say that passing would ruin football. But it happened anyway. So there’s a precedent for dramatic reforms in football, even those that change the spirit of the game. I think football has to have that same kind of radical conversation again. What if we made all tackles eligible receivers? What if we allowed all offensive players to move prior to the snap? What if we banned punt and kickoff returns, where a disproportionate number of head impacts happen? [emphasis mine]
In SI, Feagles talks about how punting has changed over his career:
Just 10 years ago there were probably only a handful of returners who could take a punt and run it back; the athletes covering the kicks were much better than the returners. But the tide has turned. Nowadays the returners are much better than the guys covering. What does that do to the punter? It puts more pressure on him to directional kick and to keep the ball out of the returners’ hands.
So the “golden age of punting” coincides with the golden age of concussions; punters and returners have both gotten better, which puts more pressure on coverage guys on both sides of the ball; and those are the guys getting dinged, injuries that contribute to disproportionately shorter lives and careers for non-punters — for a part of the game that even fans and sportswriters don’t fully appreciate. (As the SI article explains, no pure punter has ever been voted into the Hall of Fame).
I hate to say it, but maybe that Canadian is right.