Sports

N.F.L. Punters Face a Perfect Pickle

One morning last December, Michael Dickson, the Seattle Seahawks’ punter, sat on the floor of his home and meditated. He slowed his breath and wiped his mind clean. He didn’t think of that afternoon’s matchup with the division rival Los Angeles Rams, or the fact that, if the Seahawks won, they would secure the N.F.C. West title. He didn’t think of anything at all.

“I try to bring that mindfulness to the punting world as well,” Dickson, 25, said in a phone interview last month. “I don’t want to get into the habit of trying to have the perfect game, just take it one kick at a time.”

Dickson was close enough to flawless that day, pinning the Rams within their 20-yard line on four of five punts, including on booming punts of 56 and 51 yards. With the Seahawks protecting a 4-point lead in the fourth quarter, he angled his hips to the right and then cross-fired left, sending a low, juddering ball toward a distant section of sideline. Cooper Kupp, the Rams’ top receiver, had to sprint the width of the field to gather the punt at the 11-yard line. He managed just one step before his momentum pulled him out of bounds.

The Rams’ subsequent drive stalled and led to a Seahawks touchdown on the next possession. Seattle went on to win, 20-9, in part because Dickson was nearly perfect, if overlooked.

“People say, ‘It’s a third of the game,’” said Mike Westhoff, 73, a retired special teams coach whose units with the Jets and the New Orleans Saints were among the N.F.L.’s best in the 2000s and 2010s. “It used to be, but it’s not right now.”

The N.F.L.’s offensive boom has reconfigured football’s proportions. Not only do more drives end in scores, but coaches schooled in analytics understand the value of trying for a first down instead of forfeiting possession on fourth-and-short.

After the Philadelphia Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl title at the end of the 2017 season, in which Coach Doug Pederson routinely stuck with his offense on fourth down, the number of overall punts dropped by 230 across the league, to 2,214. In the 2020 season — the league’s highest scoring one, by 700 more points than any prior year — that figure fell to 1,901. This year, teams are on a pace to punt fewer than four times per game for just the second time in league history.

With far fewer opportunities come slimmer margins for error, so punters have to be great. In 2010, only three punters averaged more than 40 net yards per try. Last season, more than two-thirds of the league cleared that mark.

“These guys are getting stronger and bigger, just like any other football player,” said Jeff Feagles, who punted for five franchises from 1988 to 2009 and holds the N.F.L. record for cumulative yardage. “There’s camps that these guys are going to now, starting their freshman year of high school. Back in the day there was no instruction, you just learned how to do it. The other thing is the Australian invasion; they have this repertoire of kicks we never had.”

Dickson — a 6-foot-2 Australian who weighs 208 pounds, with the biceps of a strong safety — is at the front of both trends. In the off-season, after an All-Pro rookie year in 2018 and an even better statistical campaign in 2020, he signed a four-year, $14.5 million contract extension ($8.5 million guaranteed), the second-most valuable punter’s contract in the N.F.L.

The deal was a culmination of Dickson’s development into a type of kicking scientist. As a 19-year-old, he attended Prokick Australia, an academy in Melbourne that since 2009 has turned some Australian rules football players into leading-edge punters. (Seattle’s Week 4 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, employed another Prokick alumnus, Mitch Wishnowsky, who leads the N.F.L. in pin-deep percentage.)

Under the guidance of Nathan Chapman, a former Australian Football League punter and Prokick’s founder, Dickson refined the squibs and spinners used for ball control in Australia and picked up the high spiral technique favored by American punters in the hopes of getting a scholarship to a college in the United States.

Dickson punted for as long as the Australian daylight allowed. (“If you’re not watching him, he’ll punt a thousand balls in practice,” said Larry Izzo, the Seahawks’ special teams coach.) One morning, Chapman watched from afar while the teenager worked to increase his hang time — the interval a punt spends in the air, allowing the coverage team to run downfield. “He absolutely slaughtered the ball,” Chapman said. “Five seconds is the N.F.L. level; he was up around that five seconds before he even went to college.”

After his junior season at the University of Texas, when Dickson won the Ray Guy Award as the top collegiate punter, Seattle picked him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. In his rookie season, he finished second in the N.F.L. in average punt distance. Last year, he retained that standing while pinning teams inside the 20 with 51 percent of his kicks, the third-best mark in the league.

The small sample size of kicks means that such rankings can fluctuate widely within a season. After an uncharacteristic run of four touchbacks in four games, Dickson’s net yardage has dropped to a middling 39.9 in 2021. But he pinned the 49ers inside their own 20 three times on Sunday, vaulting up the Puntalytics Punter Expected Points Added leaderboard.

With his deep catalog of punts — spirals, “bananas” that veer sideways, end-over-end tumblers — Dickson’s virtuosity is agreed upon; his usefulness, less so. Seattle Coach Pete Carroll is widely regarded as one of the N.F.L.’s most conservative fourth-down decision makers, preferring to kick the ball away and let Dickson flash his pin-deep proficiency. But that does not do much for the Seahawks’ chances of winning or to silence fans’ calls to let Russell Wilson “cook.”

Since 2018, facing fourth down with 5 or fewer yards to go between the 40-yard lines — an analytically sound, go-for-it situation for many modern teams — Seattle has punted 34 of 40 times. On two occasions against the Titans in Week 2, the Seahawks punted in fourth-and-short situations when the numbers advised otherwise; they lost by 3 points in overtime.

“Most of the time when you’re pinning teams deep, you shouldn’t be punting in the first place,” said Aaron Schatz, editor in chief of Football Outsiders. “It would be more valuable to Seattle if they had a worse punter, if that convinced Carroll not to punt so much.”

Seattle’s coaching staff maintains there is a secondary advantage to be gained — especially in the tight games that figure to decide the N.F.C. West, whose teams all sit at or above .500 through four weeks. “Any time you pin your opponent back inside the 5-yard line, you’re looking for your defense to get a lot of momentum and get a stop, and now you get a shorter field,” Izzo said. “That’s a specific play that can lead to points, when we execute at a high level.”

It is a tall order: Dickson has to be nearly faultless to justify his job. But the lure of perfection is poison to his process. Hecan focus only on the angle of the drop, the trajectory of the flight.

“You try to take all the emotion out of it,” Dickson said, “whether it’s the division, the Super Bowl, whatever. You’re just trying to get the best result on each individual punt. And at the end of the year, they all add up.”

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