How Good Is Your Team’s Punter?
Free agency has likely come to a halt for the Vikings. It’s punter time.
How good are punters?
There is a systematic failure in the way punts are evaluated. Currently, ESPN’s punter page offers limited options for evaluation. Total punt yards makes no sense, because 1) punters don’t all have the same number of punts and 2) a longer punt isn’t necessarily better. Yards per punt is better, but still may reward longer punts erroneously. Touchbacks are generally a bad thing – the second the ball crosses the goal line, 20 yards of field position are lost. Net yards solves this, but are far more indicative of special teams as a unit, and we want to isolate punters. We need a punting stat that rewards good plays, and punishes bad ones, like we did in this article about rushing titles. But punters, unlike any other position in football, have two coinciding and conflicting goals.
Last offseason, I wrote a piece detailing a new way of evaluating punters. Due to technical difficulties, I can’t link the piece, but I can quickly re-explain my methodology.
Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, etc, can all measure progress evenly. Gaining yards is good, gaining less yards is less good- but it’s always based on forward, measured progress where more is better. Punters don’t always aim for more. Sometimes, a punter is trying to pin the other team “The Price Is Right” style – as close as possible to the goal line without going over. For this, we used “Field Percentage Gained,” or how much of the field the punt covered. So a 30 yard punt from your own 40 (60 yards away from the end zone) scored 50%, and would be pretty bad. Average punts ranged between 65% and 75%.
But when the field gets longer, that stops being sensical. A 50 yard punt from way back in your own territory is a great play, but only covers half the field. Those punts can be successfully evaluated with total yards, so we separated them out. We split the data up into “short field” and “long field” punts. The long field punts don’t have the same element of precision that the short field punts do- at that point, punters are just booting it. We drew the line betwene the two fields at the 35 yard line.
We also had to deal with touchbacks. Since each touchback removes 20 yards of field position, I subtracted 20 yards from the distance of each of those punts.
From there, we got two nice little numbers. Here’s how they turned out, as a refresher. While this was a pretty good indicator, there were some issues, mainly pointed out by Chris Kluwe when he dropped by the Purple Journal Podcast. Kluwe took a similar approach when writing the methodology for punter evaluation at Pro Football Focus. First, he mentioned to move the line to the 40, since punts are still pretty much indiscriminate boots from there. He also mentioned hangtime and directional punting. Unfortunately, I don’t have the requisite data to incorporate those two things, but they’re worth a mention and consideration.
So here are the results from this year, with that small change:
|Player||Team||Short Field||Long Field|
A lot changes over the course of a year. Brett Kern and Pat McAfee, last year’s gargantuan leaders, fell down to the middle of the pack. McAfee’s brilliant season in 2015 was plagued by injuries that eventually led to his retirement. Matt Darr, a great example of someone with a huge leg but poor precision, flipped to the other side of both. Jake Schum improved mightily in precision in Green Bay, but his leg remains relatively weak. Tragically, Andy Lee crushed the entire field in both categories before a hamstring injury landed him on IR.
Not everything has changed. Marquette King and Johnny Hekker remain at the top end of the league, while San Francisco’s Bradley Pinion remains near the bottom. The Cardinals had a bit of a punting carousel in 2016, and it was mostly subpar. Matt Wile turned out to have the strongest leg of all of them, and his awful precision numbers came from only two short field punts. He seems like the best candidate moving forward.
As a Vikings fan, I watched Jeff Locke seem to have a renaissance in 2016. After putting up the 2nd worst season in 2015, he got off to a hot start in 2016. As the year went on, however, he fell back to his usual ways, and ended up on the wrong side of average. The Colts signed Locke away to replace Pat McAfee, and barring a re-ignition of his early 2016 fire, they’ll see a downgrade. As for the Vikings, Taylor Symmank will currently enter training camp as the de facto starter, barring acquisition of another option.
Punters are people too, and deserve to be evaluated with statistics that make a single modicum of sense.
Thanks for reading!