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Pity the Poor Punter During the NFL’s Offensive Boom

Obsolescence is a necessary byproduct of innovation. With teams scoring at a historic rate in 2020, punters are spending more time on the sidelines wondering when—or if—they’ll be called into action.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Great noise is made by many of the newspapers and thousands of the traders in the country about lard oil, chemical oil, camphene oil and half a dozen other luminous humbugs; and it has been confidently predicted by more than one astute prophet that the Sperm Oil trade would soon come to an end, and the whales be left in undisturbed possession of their abode,” read an article in the The Nantucket Inquirer in its April 8, 1843 edition.

The Inquirer was skeptical of recent reports that the whaling business, which was central to the Nantucket economy, was in peril. But by then, threats to the whaling industry were at hand. Excessive hunting had decimated the whale population in the North Atlantic. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled the first productive oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, making it possible for kerosene to replace whale oil as a light source before electricity eventually did. By 1861, the need for whaling was so diminished that the U.S. government bought 38 whaling ships and sunk them in Charleston Harbor to barricade the Confederate port during the Civil War.

Yes, every invention leaves behind some set of relics; obsolescence is a necessary byproduct of innovation. Lamplighters, mapmakers, and ice cutters have all seen their utility usurped—even pinsetters, for bowling, used to be a real occupation. The NFL is on pace for its highest-scoring season in history, and the increased offensive output has identified its own winners and losers. Who, in this bright future filled with fourth-down attempts and passing mastery, is the forgotten man? He is the punter, sidelined by the march of history and perpetual moving of the chains.

“I don’t know if I even believe myself anymore on third down when I say, ‘All right, we’re definitely punting on the next play,’” Raiders punter A.J. Cole told me.

The NFL is on track for its fewest punts in any season since it went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. There have been 929 punts so far this season, an 18 percent decrease from the 1,134 punts that were kicked through nine games last season. There hasn’t been a season with fewer than 2,000 punts since 1991. At this rate, there will be only 1,788 in 2020.

Cole has punted 19 times this year. Through Week 9 of last season, he’d punted 32 times. Titans punter Brett Kern has punted 20 times, less than half of the league-leading 50 punts at this point in 2019. Green Bay’s J.K. Scott has gone from 43 punts to 22, and Buffalo’s Corey Bojorquez is at 21, down from 38.

Bojorquez punted 67 times during his senior year at New Mexico in 2017, enough to form a significant bruise on his foot that limited his practice time. He hasn’t punted more than four times in a game this season. In Week 7, against the Jets, he didn’t punt once.

“It’s kind of weird,” Bojorquez said. “It gets to third down and you’re thinking, ‘OK, I might be going out.’ Just from my mental standpoint, I always just assume we’re going to punt because then I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, crap, gotta go punt!’ Now, I’m locked in and ready to go. So it was a little weird, you know? Because, I mean, even punting once in a game is a really rare thing, so to have no punts, it was different for sure.”

Bojorquez can’t completely check out—he has holding duties on field goals and extra points, so he has to stay warmed up when the offense is on the field no matter how well it’s playing. For stretches of games this season, though, he’s become a spectator.

“Sometimes I’ll kind of walk around, watch the game, cheer them on a little bit,” Bojorquez said. “You know, best seats in the house, right on the sideline.”

One factor keeping punters like Bojorquez and Cole idle is that their offenses have been both successful and aggressive this season, including on fourth downs. The Packers, Titans, Bills, and Raiders, all teams whose punting numbers are way down, all have offenses ranked in the top 12 by Football Outsiders’s DVOA. They’re also all in the top eight in third-down conversion rate. The Saints offense has converted on a league-best 51.4 percent of its third-down tries. Shakespeare famously wrote King Lear in quarantine during the plague; it remains unclear what cultural contribution Saints punter Thomas Morstead will make after punting only once in New Orleans’ 38-3 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday night.

The Raiders’ Cole, like Bojorquez, tells himself to get ready to punt whenever Las Vegas has a third-down attempt coming, but he’s noticed a trend that’s kept him on the bench.

“It seems like every time we have a third down, Hunter Renfrow converts,” Cole said, referring to the Raiders’ wide receiver. It’s not always Renfrow, but Las Vegas is among the best in the league on third down, converting 51 percent of its attempts.

Punters do an extensive warmup routine and dozens of practice kicks before every game. Cole said he still practices by taking as many as 100 punts on game days. But his limited activity during games has led to a small disconnect with his teammates over his recovery needs.

“That’s really what takes a toll on the body,” Cole said of his pregame routine. “Sometimes if I come in the next day and I’m rolling out people are like, ‘You only punted one time, what are you sore for?’ I’m like, ‘Well, no, I punted 85 times, you guys just only saw one.’”

On Mondays, Cole is in the habit of signing his name on the massage list, which has not gone unnoticed by his offensive linemen.

“They’re like ‘What do you need a massage for? We punted one time yesterday,’” Cole said. “I’m like, ‘You guys don’t understand.’”

Surely, there are like-minded punters elsewhere who could empathize, since the scoring increase (and punting decrease) is a leaguewide trend. Offenses are on pace for the most points and touchdowns since the 1970 merger and are on pace for another record by converting nearly 43 percent of third-down attempts overall, up from last season’s 39 percent, and well above the all-time record of 41.5 percent set in 1972. Two defenses—the Titans and the Panthers—are on pace to break the 1995 Cleveland Browns’ record for the worst third-down defense in history.

Kevin Kelley, the head football coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, since 2003, is known for coaching his teams to never punt, and to kick onsides after almost every score. His data-driven methods are outside the NFL’s Overton window for aggressive play-calling but have guided his perennially high-scoring teams to a 203-29-1 record and eight state championships. When Kelley watches NFL games this season, he says he’s seeing less of the usual factors that end drives, like penalties, dropped passes, and sacks. Kelley says he’s found that his teams score on 89 percent of their drives when none of those things happen. Sacks are the biggest drive killer—Kelley said that taking a sack reduces the likelihood that his offense scores on a drive from 89 percent down to eight. So far this season, there have been 4.4 sacks per game in the NFL, down from 4.96 last season.

“What you’re seeing is, is because of that lack of sacks, because of either quarterbacks getting better athletically or getting the ball out faster, there’s less drive killers and there’s more scoring. Because that was probably—I know it is for us, and I would bet it is for the NFL—the no. 1 drive-killing thing in all of football,” Kelley said.

Coaches have also been more aggressive. Teams are going for it on fourth down and converting on those tries at record paces. There have also been fewer turnovers—2.6 per game so far this season, down from 2.8 per game last season. Penalties, particularly offensive holding, are down as well.

Kelley thinks another trend that’s boosting offenses is their increased willingness to throw to the middle of the field.

“A 10-yard throw from a quarterback to a receiver directly in front of them is 10 yards, but a 10-yard throw from a quarterback in the center of the field to the outside between the numbers and the out of bounds, you know, that’s probably more like 25 yards for the same amount,” Kelley said. “Simply put, the accuracy is so much better on those throws inside and usually in the middle of the field, and there’s more run after the catch.”

That makes it easier to be accurate between the numbers, and rules limiting how defensive backs can hit receivers take away some of the risk that used to be associated with going over the middle.

“If you look at the percentage of passes thrown inside the numbers or maybe inside the hashes even as opposed to what they were, you know, 10 years ago or five years ago, you’ll see it’s greatly increased over the past couple of years,” Kelley said.

Kelley, happily, doesn’t have to turn away punters from his teams because he has his junior high programs follow the same philosophical tenets. He does, however, often have to deny his kickers the chance to kick balls deep into the end zone on kickoffs since his teams almost always attempt onside kicks after they score.

“What hurts you is when you do have a good kicker who can kick it in the end zone and I tell them we’re onside kicking anyway. We just don’t kick the ball deep,” Kelley said. “That’s the one that I honestly feel bad about the most because they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey coach, this week you think maybe I could kick something deep?” And I’m like, “Sorry buddy. Not unless we get up big, then you can kick it in the end zone.”

It’s easy to see how some punters would prefer an older, analytically disinclined approach to offense, like the whalers grumbling about the burn rates of kerosene. But not so, said Cole.

“I’m super pro ‘go for it’ all the time,” Cole said. “I love scoring.”

Cole loves scoring because he likes to win, but also because scoring means he gets to do his favorite part of his job, which is actually not punting.

“Holding for an extra point in a game where the offense is balling and you end up winning? It’s the most fun you can have playing football,” Cole said. “I’ll stand by that.”

“The cannons are going off and they’re playing the music like ‘Oh, Raiders touchdown!’ You run on the field and everybody’s excited to see you. Usually, no one is excited to see me.”