Imagine what it would feel like to be the best in the world at something. I can’t do it. A few years ago I won my fantasy football league, and felt that I was some sort of galaxy-level mastermind. Then I thought about it and remembered that, among a group of 12 people, I had merely won a game based on the achievements of other individuals. Being the best in the world at something—fantasy football, writing, playing the French horn, sex, making chili, impersonating Christopher Walken—is a level of scale I simply cannot imagine.
Now imagine being the best in the world at something that’s highly valuable, a skill that tens of thousands of people attempt in hopes of one day earning millions of dollars. That’s the reality for Johnny Hekker, the Rams’ 28-year-old punter who has been named first-team All-Pro four times and second-team All-Pro twice over his seven NFL seasons. He holds the single-season record for net punting average—and three of the top four spots on the all-time leaderboard. In 2016 he turned in the greatest punting season in NFL history, booming 51 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line while recording just one touchback. He not only punts the ball deep—he’s second in league history in career yards per punt—but he also punts in a way that’s incredibly difficult to return. Twice he’s led the league in fewest average yards per return. Other punters marvel at the technical difficulty of Hekker’s punts. The foot is probably the clumsiest part of the human body—it’s this hand-like, stubby club that traded all its dexterity for the durability to support our weight—and yet Hekker has turned his into an instrument of precision, with power and accuracy that are unmatched in the history of his sport.
Hekker’s punting mastery is a hot topic heading into Super Bowl LIII because his Rams will play the Patriots, who are led by Bill Belichick—the greatest coach of all time and a noted punting enthusiast. Belichick will not shut up about how great Hekker is. “This guy is a weapon,” he told reporters in 2016. (“[Belichick] went on for an hour about our punter because there wasn’t much else we were doing well,” Rams long snapper Jacob McQuaide remembered.) This week Belichick said Hekker is “as good a player as I’ve ever seen at that position.” Thanks to Belichick, the football universe might finally come to understand what’s been plain to anyone who pays attention to special teams for some time: Hekker is the best there is.
So now I need you to imagine one more thing. Think about how incredible it is that Hekker is as good as he is at punting—and then think about the fact it’s his second-favorite thing to do on the football field. Johnny Hekker is the King of Punting, but he’s a Fake Punt God.
“Deep down inside, all punters want to throw,” Rams special teams coach John Fassel says of Hekker this week. “He just can.” While Hekker denies that he prefers throwing to kicking—“Punting is where I earn my income,” he says—his coach remains unconvinced. “He’d much rather throw than punt,” Fassel says.
As a senior in high school, Hekker (with an absolutely hideous haircut) quarterbacked his team to the Washington state Class 4A championship game. He sent out his highlight tape to colleges—six minutes of QB play, and then about a minute of punting tucked away at the end. Much to his dismay, college coaches only wanted to talk to him about the final minute. (“I remember thinking, this is kinda weird … why would the special teams coach be calling me?” Hekker wrote for The Players’ Tribune.) Hekker went to Oregon State, where he somehow got an even worse haircut.
Oregon State brought in two walk-on punters in 2008: Hekker and Ryan Allen. They were given the opportunity to compete for a single scholarship spot. Allen was more technically sound, having spent his high school career primarily as a punter during the period when Hekker still saw himself as a future quarterback. But Hekker clearly had talent, and ultimately won the gig. It looked like Oregon State had made the wrong decision when Allen transferred to Louisiana Tech and became the first punter to win the Ray Guy Award (given to the nation’s best punter) in back-to-back seasons. But now that Allen is on the Pats and Hekker is on the Rams, and the two are about to trade punts in the Super Bowl, it’s clear that Oregon State’s coaches faced a unique dilemma back in 2008. They were witness to the most talented punting competition in college football history.
But what turned the most heads at Oregon State wasn’t Hekker’s punting. It was his ability to dunk all over people on the basketball court.
I remember watching Hekker straight up posterize dudes playing pickup basketball as a Freshman at OSU and thinking "who's this guy?". Then found out he was the back up punter but in his words "not for much longer"— Brady Brummett (@DoctorBrumski) January 30, 2019
I wanted to ask Sean Mannion—Oregon State’s starting quarterback from 2011 to 2014, and the Rams’ backup from 2015 through now—about the above tweet. He brought up Hekker’s intramural hoops dominance before I could. “He was by far the best basketball player at Oregon State that wasn’t on the basketball team,” Mannion says. “Dunking on people, shooting 3s, everything.” Sure, Mannion had the quarterback job that Hekker wanted, but Mannion was blown away by how good Hekker was at, well, pretty much everything.
“He’s one of those guys where everything he touches turns to gold,” Mannion says. “He’s good at everything he does. He’ll play in a golf tournament and hit a hole-in-one and win a free car.” (Apparently, this really happened.) This quality is now most evident on fake punts.
A punter does not have to be particularly good at throwing to complete a pass on a fake punt. Here’s a 2017 clip of Bears punter Pat O’Donnell lofting a slow, off-target mallard that went for 38 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, because the defense had no plan to stop a fake. In this 2017 clip, the Jaguars literally didn’t defend the Jets player being thrown to, and punter Lac Edwards still almost missed the pass. But Hekker can throw.
“I’ve got a good release for a punter,” Hekker says. “He’s got a good release, period,” says Mannion. Sam Shields, who has been the receiver on two of Hekker’s three completed passes this season, goes a step further. “I always tell him,” Shields says, “‘You’re a quarterback.’”
Hekker is a smidge ahead of the rest of the league in punting stats, which makes him incredible at his job. When it comes to fake punts, though, he is in a league of his own.
Most teams run fake punts once in a blue moon. Since Hekker entered the NFL in 2012, the punters for the 31 other franchises have combined to go just 25-of-39 passing, meaning in an average season they’ll attempt about five passes and complete three. (Some of these pass attempts presumably came on fake field goals, and there are myriad other ways to execute a fake punt besides having the punter throw.) The Ravens’ Sam Koch has thrown four passes (4-for-4 for 56 yards) over the past seven years; former Seahawks’ punter Jon Ryan has thrown three (2-for-3 for 15 yards and a touchdown). Every other punter has thrown two passes or fewer.
Hekker alone is 12-for-20 passing for 168 yards and a touchdown. (He also completed a pass on a two-point conversion, which doesn’t factor into his official statistics.) He’s responsible for 32 percent of the total completions thrown by punters, and 33 percent of the total attempts. “I don’t think we’re catching anybody by surprise,” Fassel says.
In Hekker’s rookie season, all three of his throws were to wiiiiiiiide-open players. His first throw came when the 49ers assumed he’d never throw a pass out of his own end zone and failed to defend one of the Rams’ gunners. His second came in the same game, on what might have been the first run-pass option called for a punter. His third came on a fake field goal attempt, a trick play during which the Rams pretended to sub wide receiver Danny Amendola out of the game and instead had him park about a yard from the sideline. There wasn’t a defender within 10 yards of any of Hekker’s 2012 targets. These are the type of throws you’d expect that a punter or mailman could reasonably make.
Now that defenses expect Hekker to throw, he has to make more difficult passes—but he’s still able to complete them. In September 2017 against Washington, Hekker took the field with the defense covering receiver Josh Reynolds like it was a passing down. Hekker zipped a pass in to Reynolds anyway. Both of Hekker’s passes to Shields this season—the 11th and 12th completions of his career, respectively—were on the same design: Shields essentially ran a comeback route, pretending to dart downfield to get to the punt returner but returning to the ball to create separation. These are the types of throws you’d think a team would need a quarterback to make.
Surprisingly, the Rams haven’t attempted more fake punts since the team changed coaches from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay before the 2017 campaign. That seems odd considering Fisher has a reputation as a hyperconservative punt aficionado, while McVay holds a reputation as a risk-taking football futurist. But Hekker threw four passes in 2015 under Fisher, and four passes this regular season under McVay.
Yet given how dramatically the offense has improved under McVay, Hekker now takes the field far less than he used to. Hekker attempted a league-high 96 punts in 2015, because those Rams recorded fewer first downs than any other team. Hekker attempted 43 punts this season, tied for the fewest in the league, because these Rams recorded more first downs than anyone else. “We don’t have a lot of punts this year, because we’re an explosive offense,” McQuaide says. “If you’re punting the ball a lot and turning the ball over a lot, that’s what we were doing previously when we were bad.”
So while Hekker throws about as often as he always has, he’s actually much more likely to throw than he used to be. In 2015, Hekker threw a pass 4 percent of the time he came onto the field. In 2018, that figure has more than doubled, to 8.5 percent. When Hekker entered the league under Fisher, the fakes he threw on came on exotic looks designed to get players wide open. Under McVay, Hekker’s throws are essentially regular passing plays that come out of punting sets. With Hekker at punter, the Rams offense is always on the field.
By the time Hekker retires, he’ll probably be considered the greatest punter ever to play the game. But perhaps that role’s just been a means to an end, allowing him to be what he’s wanted to be all along: a quarterback playing in the Super Bowl.