In many ways punters are like offensive lineman. Physically they couldn't be more different, but they are similar in that we only notice them when they are not doing a good job. If I were to ask you which offensive lineman played the best against the Bills, you would probably be hard pressed to answer because most fans don't pay any attention to them - until they get called for a penalty or allow a sack. Punters are similar, if they are performing well, we overlook them. After having a series of sub-par games, Britton Colquitt played a big role in winning the field position battle last game. His three punts averaged 49.7 yards, which is well above his season average, but we miss a lot if we just look at his gross average. One of his punts was almost downed inside the five, rolling into the endzone for his second touchback of the season. The punt was from the 50, so the gross was 50 yards, but the net is only 30 because of the touchback. His other two punts on the day were from our 39 (pinned Buffalo at the 8) and from our 44 (pinned Buffalo at the 10). Both of those are WINS for a punter, and as you will see later, pinning the other team inside the 15 is something that Colquitt (and the punt coverage team) have been able to do well this year.
So let's take a step back and think about how punters are evaluated - these are not necessarily in order of importance
Broncos vs. Bills: 3rd and long is strange win
The offense had only 3 passing first downs. The defense allowed conversions on 9 or 16 3rd downs and 2 of 3 4th downs. We still won by 7, but it should have been a much larger final margin.
Ultimate Fan-Guide: "D" can't let up in SD
This week's ultimate fan is another young'n who knows neither the thrill of the 80s AFC Championship victories nor the anguish of that decade's Super Bowl defeats. Heck, he was just a toddler when Broncos won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. But he does remember seasons 2010 and 2011, so he's got plenty of history with this team to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. Luckily, there's always more of the former, including this season and this next game.
1. Gross punt distance - how far can you punt the ball
2. Hang time - if the ball is in the air forever, the coverage team should have no problem dropping the returner if he doesn't fair catch the punt. Punters with better hangtime generally force more fair catches.
3. Direction - punting the ball towards the sideline without hitting it out of bounds gives the team an added defender on the play, the sideline.
4. Accuracy - it does your team no good to punt the ball into the endzone particularly if you are punting from close to midfield. This is usually measured by how many punts you get downed inside the 20 (or the 10 or the 5) and by how few of your punts end as touchbacks.
5. Punting speed - getting a punt blocked is a very bad thing. This happens because of poor blocking, a bad snap, a fumbled long snap or just a slow punter. Colquitt has only had one punt blocked in his career.
Shown below is a chart of Colquitt's career numbers so that you can see how he is doing this year relative to how he has done in the past as well as how his individual stats ranked league-wide each year (rank shown to the right for all stats except number of punts). These are the numbers that are available at NFL.com (with a little added)
For his career Colquitt has been above average in accuracy (TB%, in20%) and hangtime (FC%) and average in distance. His career trend shows that he is punting for less distance now than earlier in his career and that his accuracy has been continually improving over time.
As I pointed out in my article last week, Colquitt is near the bottom of the league in gross punt distance this year (vexing because he plays at altitude) but he has never been great at distance as you can see in the chart above. So far this year he is having his worst career year for gross punt distance. Is there a reason for this (that does not inovlve the phrase "he just sucks")? One defense of Colquitt is that he is sacrificing distance for hangtime. PFF does track hangtime and Colquitt is near the top of the league in average hangtime. I've tracked it nominally by fair catch %. FC% is an area where he has excelled in the past two seasons and he is getting better each year. Another defense of Colquitt is that his lack of gross punt distance could be reflective of where he is punting. That is, if he is punting from near midfield on most occasions, a 35 yard punt would be considered a WIN for him because the opponent would start their drive inside the 20. This, however, would drag his average distance down if he punted in a lot of short-field conditions. I'll address punt position later in the article, but let's look at the whole league in terms of average gross punt distance.
2014 Gross Punt Average
So there are the numbers for Colquitt in comparison with the rest of the league after 13 games. Gross punt average does not subtract out distance lost on touchbacks or punt returns. NET punt average does. Colquitt is currently 24th in NET punt average.
Pinning the other team deep
In order to answer the question of whether Colquitt is sacrificing distance for accuracy we need to look at how he compares to the rest of the league in terms of getting punts downed inside the 20, 15, 10 and 5. These are going to be given as rate stats (% of punts downed inside the X yard line). I have also coined the precision punt percentage, PPP, to analyze punting accuracy. PPP is the % of punts downed inside the 10 minus the touchback percentage. In my opinion that is probably the truest measure of a punters accuracy since they need to hit the ball hard enough to get it to the 10, but not so hard that it goes into the endzone. Downing punts inside the 10 or 5 yard line also relies on a good punt coverage unit since it's extremely difficult to get a punt to stop at the two without the coverage unit down there to stop the ball from going into the endzone.
So this makes our punter's performance look a whole lot better than simply looking at gross punt distance. He's above average in % of punts inside the 20, the 10 and the 5. He's also near the top of the league in touchback % (which punters want to be be near zero) so his PPP is 6th best in the league. For comparison, the punter for Washington has the best gross punt average, but he is below average in almost all of the accuracy numbers and he is one of the worst in the league in touchback%. The result is that he has one of the worst PPP numbers in the league. (Don't you love seeing a stat where the Patriots are dead last?). So let's now look at where Colquitt has punted when we have punted this year and compare that to the rest of the league. Does Colquitt punt more often on a "short-field" (Denver 35 yard line or beyond) than is average? Could that be affecting his distance?
It stands to reason that a team punting from deep in it's own territory should have a better gross punting average because the punter is not worried about hitting it "too hard". If the ball is spotted at the 20, the punter is going to just punt the ball as far as they can (unless they are focusing on hangtime). It also stands to reason that a team with a horrible offense is going to have many more long-field punt situations than a team with a good offense (i.e., more 3 and outs from deep in your own territory). So let's look at the percentage of long field punts (when the offense gets stopped anywhere from their 1 to their 34 yard line). lfp% = percentage of long-field punts
|Gross||long field||short field|
So almost exactly half of Colquitt's punts have been short field punts (35 or beyond) while the league average is 53%. Almost all of the teams at the top of this list have bad offense (TB, NYJ, JAX, TEN) and it helps explain why the Saints have been so inconsistent on offense this year. Interestingly there is no correlation between lfp% and gross punting distance. If we focus solely on Coquitt, his average distance on long field punts is 46.3 yards gross, which is slightly below league average of 47.9. Ryan Allen and Sam Martin are tied for the league lead at 51.4 yards average on long-field punts. On short-field punts (punts from the team's 35 or beyond) Colquitt's average is 42.0 yards gross, which is exactly the league average on short-field punts.
A new way to measure punting performance?
Probably the best way to evaluate punters would be to give them a % score for each punt that was based upon there distance from the endzone and where the other teams started their drive after the punt. At the simplest level the job of the punter (and the punt coverage team) is to make the other team start as close to their end zone as possible. This evaluation would tell us how much potential yardage the punter did or did not get for his team. For example in the Bills game, Colquitt had a punt from our 39. A "60 yard punt" here would mean that the Bills would have started their drive at their 1 yard line. 60/60 = 100% that would be the theoretical best that Colquitt could do in that situation (a 60 yard punt downed at the 1). The Bills started that drive at the 8, so 7 yards from perfect, (60-7)/60 = 53/60 = 88%. 88% is Colquitt's score on that punt - he got us 88% of the possible yardage he could have. Another example from the first game against KC this year, Colquitt was punting from the KC 44, he hit a punt that was fair caught at the 10, so 34/43 = 79% on that punt. Applying this metric, Colquitt has an average punt score of 63.0% for the season. That includes the punt return touchdown we gave up against NE (a -45.6% value). Applying this same evaluation to Pat McAfee, who is widely regarded as the best punter in the league, McAfee scores a 67.6% for the year. Ryan Allen, the Patriots punter, scores a 62.9%.
Now no punter can routinely hit 90 yard punts so this is a flaw in this metric. Punters who have lots of long-field punts will have numbers that are articially low because they could not realistically be expected to routinely hit 60+ yard punts. I might need to tweak this metric if I do anything else with it, but I still like the idea of knowing how much yardage a punter gained for the team relatively to how much he could have gained. Let me know if the comments what you think of this way of evaluating punters.
There are many factors that have to be weighed when answering the question "How good or bad is our punter?" My evaluation of Britton Colquitt last week was cursory and missed some of the parts of his game that keep him employed as our punter (namely his accuracy). I was rash in suggesting that he should be canned simply because his gross punt distance is poor and because he is the highest paid punter in the NFL. Based upon the actions of the front office, Barth's inability to get touchbacks was a much bigger problem than Colquitt's lack of punting distance. To have a chance at winning the Super Bowl we need to be elite in some things and at least average in everything else. When one aspect of your team is below average, that aspect will be exploited like our running game and our special teams were exploited in the Super bowl. From this analysis of Britton Colquitt, he is not an aspect of the team that is below average and, as such, his performance should not cause an obstacle that would keep us from the Lombardi trophy this year.