In a game where field position rules, shifts in punting trends—coffin corner, RIP—can be as important as, say, the advent of the spread offense. So you might as well embrace the banana kick now
THE COURSE of NFL special teams was altered by the frugality of Darren Bennett, who wanted to take his bride, Rosemary, someplace glamorous on their honeymoon and didn't want to pay for it.
But before recounting that couple's itinerary—and how Darren went on to revolutionize punting—let us observe a moment of silence for one of the more exquisite plays in football as it fades from the game, almost entirely replaced by a straight-ahead technique that's more consistently effective, it's true, but nowhere near as dramatic—or alliterative. The endangered art form in question: the sinister sounding, morale-sapping coffin corner kick, a once-popular option for dooming the receiving team to poor field position. "When the ball hits around the four-yard line, then bounces and rolls out-of-bounds at the one," says Jeff Feagles, the former All-Pro punter, "I don't think there's a more exciting play in the punting game."
Well, of course there's a more exciting play: the sight of some quicksilver return man bursting through a fissure in the coverage and taking it to the house. The last man the returner embarrasses before crossing the plane is typically the punter (cue Benny Hill music), so it's no surprise that Feagles gives electrifying returns short shrift, choosing instead to mourn the demise of the coffin corner, which is going the way of the wing T.
Feagles's 22-year NFL career began in 1988, two seasons after the retirement of Ray Guy and during the heyday of similarly thunder-footed Reggie Roby. In those simpler times the NFL did not bristle with quite so many dangerous, dedicated returners. "Fast forward to 10 years ago," says Feagles, "and it seemed like every team had one." That led to the rise of directional punting, in which the object is to pin return men on the sideline or negate runbacks altogether by booting the ball out-of-bounds. As Giants coach Tom Coughlin was wont to whisper to Feagles before games, "No touches."
Still, it's a risky business, dialing down leg speed and angling the ball, especially toward the corner. "If you're off five degrees on that one, that's a 20-some-yard punt," says Saints punter Thomas Morstead. "And that'll get you fired."
"It is very difficult for a rightfooted punter to angle [the ball] to the right," agrees Feagles, "because all you're thinking about is the shank. You have to pick a spot, trust your swing and just commit to it. That's what I got really good at."
He was better than good. He was, as Jules claimed to be in Pulp Fiction, "the foot f------ master" of directional punting, and might have been the best ever at the coffin corner, a kick whose very difficulty has resulted in its near obsolescence. These days the league is full of less-skilled laborers—housepainters to Feagles's Renoir—who have adopted a much surer thing. "Directional punting is not on the wane," says Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, "but the coffin corner is. Punters are using a different technique."
By dropping the nose until the ball is almost vertical, like a distressed dirigible, then striking it near the point closest to the ground, punters achieve a rotation commonly described as "end over end," although, as Rosburg points out, "the ball is actually going end under end." The ensuing backspin ensures that if the ball is not fair caught, the rugby punt (aka the Aussie drop) bounces back upfield, away from the end zone, preventing touchbacks and reducing the incidence of ulcers in men like Rosburg, who describes a touchback as "worse than 19 other things that could've happened."
Sure, it's a safer bet, allows Feagles, reluctantly, "but it's boring." It's also the kind of thing, one might point out, that routinely creates long fields and kills drives, as when punters Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs and Mike Scifres of the Chargers alternated rugby punts early on Sunday, creating offensive fields of 89 yards and 92 yards. Neither team made it past midfield on its ensuing drive.
The story of how the Aussie drop arrived on these shores and swept the NFL, despite the resistance of certain close-minded coaches, is anything but.
DARREN BENNETT was 27 in 1992, a star player for the Melbourne Demons of the Australian Football League. But Aussie rules demand miles of running every match, and Bennett's surgically repaired knees hurt. Engaged to be married, he was also on the cusp of retiring when he heard that a local long-kicking contest was offering a pair of round-trip plane tickets to Los Angeles as a prize. He signed up and won on his final kick, a majestic "torpedo," as Aussies refer to long spiral punts, that sailed 87 yards.
From L.A. the newlyweds traveled by train to Vancouver, then flew back to Southern California, with a stop in San Diego. Bennett's strength coach in Melbourne had a tenuous connection to the Chargers' front office—which is how Bennett found himself at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium one morning with Marty Hurney and Donnie Lindemann, neither of whom really wanted to be there. Those men were merely humoring their boss, GM Bobby Beathard, who had a famously open mind about specialists from across the waters. As a scout for the Chiefs in 1966 he'd discovered a Norwegian kicker who was at Montana State on a ski-jumping scholarship. Twenty-five years later Jan Stenerud was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lindemann stood just 40 yards from Bennett and told him to kick away. "You wanna back up a bit?" the auditioning punter suggested. "And Donnie says, 'No, I'm good,'" Bennett recalls. "So I banged one over his head and into the stands."
Halfway through the workout, Hurney went inside to get Billy Devaney, San Diego's director of player personnel. "I need you to look at this guy and tell me I'm not nuts," said Hurney, "because he looks really good." The next day, with Beathard watching, the team brought in veteran long snapper Sam Anno, whose first offering whistled through Bennett's hands and hit him in the face. When Bennett finally did get the punt off, he shanked it. (Anno later admitted that he'd never snapped a ball harder, explaining, "I liked John Kidd"—the Chargers' incumbent punter—"and I wasn't about to let some upstart Aussie come in and take his job.")
Bennett was ready for Anno's second snap, another heater. "I caught it and smashed it, and I had their attention," he says.
San Diego stashed Bennett on its practice squad in 1994. That's when he first broke out the backward-spinning, end-under-end drop punt, which he described to his coaches as "a placement kick" that was far easier to control than the league-standard spiral and much less likely to result in a touchback. The drop punt's most passionate advocate early on was Anno's eventual replacement at long snapper, David Binn, who would go on to play 17 seasons for the Chargers and—of greater interest to many fans—date Pamela Anderson. "That thing is great!" Binn would exclaim. "You can stop it on a dime!"
Less enthusiastic was Chuck Priefer, San Diego's special teams coach at the time. "I showed Chuck," explains Bennett, "and he said, 'We don't do that in the NFL. We hit spirals.'" (In his defense, Priefer explains, Bennett "started fussing around with this new kick, but he was still learning the fundamentals." Bennett was told to stick to the basics.)
During one especially blustery practice Bennett was punting to the return team. To better control where the ball went—he wanted to deliver it consistently to the returner—he hit a series of drop punts "40, 45 yards, right down the middle." That is, until he was confronted by ticked-off coach Bobby Ross.
"Are you meaning to hit that thing end over end?" Ross demanded.
"Well, you're screwing up my drill. Hit a spiral!"
Bennett explained that by consistently delivering the ball to the returners, he thought he wasn't screwing up the drill.
"They need to be catching spirals!"
One year later, after a brief stint with the World League's Amsterdam Admirals, Bennett finally got promoted to the Chargers' 53-man roster, and his 44.7 yards per punt, second in the league, earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl. But, forced to kick spirals in the plus-50 area, he still had trouble keeping the ball out of the end zone. It wasn't until Bennett's third season—Ross having been replaced by Kevin Gilbride—that he got the green light to use his Aussie drop.
Realizing the usefulness of that tool, Gilbride's special teams coach, Frank Novak, said, "'This is gonna help us get fewer touchbacks,'" as Bennett recalls. "And that's where it started."
Bennett spent another six seasons with the Chargers, punting 612 times. Probably half of those were so-called drop punts. And how many of those 300-odd kicks went for touchbacks? Three, Bennett reports.
Small wonder that he spawned imitators.
KICKING SPECIALISTS have often provided a welcome dose of color and character in a league known for its caution and conservatism. Even before the Chiefs signed Stenerud, soccer-style kicking had been introduced to pro football by Pete Gogolak, a Cornell-educated son of Hungary. Garo Yepremian, a superb kicker best remembered, alas, for his slapstick scramble in Super Bowl VII, was a Cypriot national who produced and painted neckties in the off-season.
Bennett, for his part, ushered in a stream of Aussie punters: Ben Graham, Mat McBriar and Sav Rocca each played at least 99 NFL games. Brad Wing, son of David Wing, who punted one season for the World League's Scottish Claymores, now does that job for the Steelers.
No punter has had a better day this season than the Seahawks' Jon Ryan did on Sept. 21—a felicitous twist, considering that Seattle celebrated that afternoon as Canada Day and Ryan hails from Regina, Saskatchewan. After hearing his country's national anthem and seeing a company of Mounties on the sideline, Ryan morphed into a kind of human spatula, flipping the field to Denver's disadvantage with boots of 58, 61 and 66 yards—to say nothing of his 79-yard free kick following a Broncos safety. In closer confines he used the backward-spinning drop punt to pin the visitors on their seven-yard line. Twice. The Seahawks won 26--20.
How did you come to play gridiron football? Ryan had been asked earlier that month. Did you suck at hockey? He laughed, then explained that he grew up loving football and his hometown Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Ryan punted through high school and college, then averaged a CFL-record 50.6 yards in 2005 for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. During a two-year stint with the Packers, he began tinkering with the Aussie drop. Since his arrival in Seattle, "it's become one of the strongest parts of my game," he says. "Being able to control that punt, to consistently pin [opponents] deep, has really raised my punting to the next level." A few weeks after making that observation, he was named September's NFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
The drop, though, is not for everyone. Johnny Hekker, the Rams' third-year punter, alternates between slaughtering the ball and performing surgery. Last season his 44.2-yard net average set an NFL record and earned him a trip to Hawaii. And while he's got the Aussie drop in his quiver—Hekker calls it the "flip kick"—he doesn't get to use it that often. That's because when the Rams get much past midfield, they're more likely to call on placekicker Greg (Legatron) Zuerlein.
"You build what you're going to do off the punter's strengths," says special teams coordinator, John Fassel, who came to the Rams from Oakland, where he coached Shane Lechler. "Shane was really good at just banging it right down the middle"—a strategem resulting in 19 touchbacks in 2006, third most in NFL history—"so that's what we did."
And it's what the Raiders are still doing, a reverence for all things deep and vertical embedded in the club's DNA. Lechler has since been replaced by third-year man Marquette King, a raw talent who smashes the ball but, as special teams coach Bobby April allows, had too many touchbacks last season.
The danger of the jaw-dropping, cloud-scratching, 60-plus-yard parabola is that it sometimes leaves the punter outkicking his coverage. This cautionary note comes from Reggie Roby's Wikipedia entry: "At Rich Stadium, Roby punted the ball a team record 77 yards, but the punt was returned 70 yards."
Three seasons ago, then Rams punter Donnie Jones clubbed a 54-yarder in overtime against the Cardinals. Rookie returner Patrick Peterson's decision to field the ball at the one-yard line looked foolhardy—until he ended the game with his 99-yard return. Punter and returner reprised those roles three weeks later, this time with Peterson returning a 55-yard boomer 80 yards for the score. By the next season Jones was out in St. Louis, replaced by Hekker.
PUNTING IS not the sexiest phase of the game. O.K., it's quite possibly the least sexy phase of the game. But to borrow from "Business Time," Flight of the Conchords' paean to weeknight lovemaking, punting is the football equivalent of taking out the recycling: "That isn't part of the foreplay process/But it is still very important."
Important enough that a virtuoso performance by a punter can almost single-, ummm, footedly win a game, as Scifres demonstrated in his Chargers' 23--17 AFC wild-card victory over the Colts in 2009, when he averaged a playoff-record 51.7 net yards (taking touchbacks and returns into consideration). Where a five-second hang time once represented the outer realm of punting possibility, the rainbows smote by the easygoing Louisiana native often come closer to six. "He doesn't need to directional punt," says Bennett. "His direction is straight up."
Each of Scifres's six punts, including a 67-yarder, was downed inside Indy's 20-yard line, four inside the 10. Two were fair caught; two were returned, for a total of six yards. His final kick was both clutch and retro, a superbly executed coffin corner that trickled out-of-bounds at the one and gave San Diego a short field on the game's decisive drive.
The better today's punter is, the more he dulls the game. No touches. Special teams coaches who traffic in trickeration, drawing up some of the most imaginative plays in football, don buzzkill hats when their punt teams take the field. Longtime Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry, author of the Music City Miracle, often told punter Craig Hentrich that his favorite punt was the "40-yard fair catch." Snore.
And yet the fun keeps finding ways to sneak in. Hentrich, who retired following the 2009 season, was a pioneer of the knuckleball punt, which produces a hovering, wobbly, erratically descending football that resulted in, by his estimation, five to 10 muffed punts during his career.
Plenty of NFL punters play around with the knuckler in practice. (And, really, what else do they have to do?) Fewer have the confidence to try it in a real game.
"I'll break it out once in a while," says the Buccaneers' Michael Koenen, who learned the dark art from Hentrich himself during a 2009 pregame chat. "It's a fun thing to play with, but you're kinda like a knuckleball pitcher: You can't always hit the strike zone." The key, he says, is to contact the ball "perfectly square, so there's no spin on it at all. I've had returners just run away from it."
What does that drop look like? For a normal punt, Koenen explains, the ball is dropped flat onto the foot with its nose at 11 o'clock, its tail at 5. A knuckle punt is achieved with a more unnatural, less intuitive drop: nose at 1 o'clock, tail at 7. "You hold it exactly the opposite of how you'd hold a regular punt"—not to be confused with the nose-down Aussie drop, which he learned from the leftfooted, Geelong-born Graham, who, come to think of it, placed second to Bennett in that long-kicking contest back in 1992.
Further out on the fringes, unseen as yet in an NFL game: the exotic, possibly apocryphal banana kick.
"I'm telling you," insists April, "I've worked out a couple of Aussies, and they have this deal where, instead of dropping the nose down"—in lieu of a football, he is holding a clipboard—"they tilt it kind of like this"—the stern end of the clipboard sags noticeably beneath the bow—"and it goes like a propeller, so when it hits the ground, it spins sideways!"
Are you making this up? he is asked.
So are Coughlin and all the coaches who work to impose order, stasis, predictability on their punt teams. In the end, creativity and innovation will carry the day. It just might take a while. Ask Darren Bennett.
How the pros do it
Still the industry standard, especially inside a team's own territory.
Bennett's brainchild—angled almost vertically—has proved more than a fad.
The fickle sideways-spinning punt gets practiced by many, perfected by few.
Ever since Bennett arrived with his Aussie drop, punters have become more proficient at placing the ball inside the 10-yard line.
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Since 2011, no one has had more punts downed inside the 10-yard line than these special teams aces—each of them a practitioner of the Aussie drop.