≡ Menu

Punting, Kicking Games Power Luck-less Colts

The Indianapolis Colts won a game without Andrew Luck in week four, but that doesn’t mean the defense is any good or that the offense can survive without Luck.  In fact, this was the rare game where the Colts got outplayed on both sides of the ball and still win.  It sure helps to have two All-Pro specialists on the team.

Take a look at the boxscore from the game.  The Colts won by 3 points, and PFR provides an expected points summary of many aspects of the game play.  By definition, the sum of those values have to equal +3 for the Colts, and -3 for the Jaguars.  On offense, the Colts were 3.57 points below average, and therefore, the Jaguars were 3.57 points above average on defense.  Indianapolis had a similar performance on defense, where it was 3.23 points below average, and Jacksonville was 3.23 points above average.

But the Colts gained a bit advantage on special teams: Indianapolis’ punting unit scored a +4.3, while Indianapolis had an 8.63-point advantage when it comes to field goals and extra points.  In other words, score one for Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri, in particular contrast to Bryan Anger and Jason Myers.

Let’s start with the punting game. In the off-season, I looked at one measure of punting, which involving comparing where the opposing team took possession after a punt relative to expectation. This isn’t breaking news — it’s pretty much how Football Outsiders has been grading punters for years — but I think it provides an improvement over traditional measures.

Well, by that metric, the top four punts in the game were by McAfee.

  • With 56 seconds left in the game, the Colts punted at their own 16 yard line.  The Jaguars had two timeouts remaining, and would “expect” to take possession at their own 43-yard line.  Instead, McAfee punted 57 yards with no returns, pinning Jacksonville at their own 27.  McAfee’s punt produced 16 yards of field position over average, and it turned out to be even more important than that.
  • With 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, McAfee punted from the Jacksonville 40, and pinned the Jaguars at the…. 1 yard line.  An average punt would have dropped the Jaguars at their own 11, so this produced 10 yards over average.
  • With 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter, the Colts had to punt at their own 19.  McAfee boomed a 53-yarder, allowing just 3 yards on the return, giving the Colts 8.5 yards over expectation.
  • Finally, early in the game, McAfee punted from the Indianapolis 39.  The average punt there gains about 40 yards of field position, but McAfee punted for 45 yards with no return.

As for Vinatieri, he went three for three with a 54-yard field goal in the 1st quarter, and a 32-yarder in the 4th, and a 27-yarder to win it in overtime. That’s a good game, but not exactly an “article-worthy” one.  Instead, the Colts big advantage in the kicking game was tied to the failures of Myers.

After McAfee’s huge punt at the end of regulation, Blake Bortles drove the Jaguars down the field in the final minute to set up a 53-yard field goal to win the game.  Had McAfee not been so successful, Bortles and the Jaguars offense would have had more time (or fewer yards) to get into better range; instead, Myers missed the 53-yarder, resulting in the game going to overtime.1 Then, in overtime, he missed a 45-yard attempt.

Without Luck, the Colts offense was less impressive than an improving young Jacksonville offense.  And it’s not a stretch to say Jacksonville’s defense now appears to be better than the Indianapolis defense, too.  But in week 4, Indianapolis had big advantages at punter and kicker.  Every once in awhile, that’s all a team needs.

  1. He actually missed the kick twice, since the Colts “froze” him before his kick. []
  • Richie

    I always waver back and forth as to how I think teams should handle kickers. On one hand, it seems nice to just have a reliable kicker like Vinatieri. He may not be the best long kicker, but he’s still pretty steady on the close stuff – at a cost of $2.5M/year.

    I don’t really believe in “clutch” ability, but I do believe in “anti-clutch”. And kicker is probably one of the positions this can affect. A good kicker can be put in a position for a do-or-die kick at the end of the game, and just get in his head and think about it too much and miss a kick he would normally make. No amount of kicks in practice can let a coach know how a guy will do in this situation.

    Myers’ potential game-winner was a 53-yard miss, so not a gimme kick. But Myers is making $2M less than Vinatieri.

    When a kicker misses a game-winner, it is just such a heart-breaking way to lose. But maybe a team is better off sticking with young, low-paid kickers who do well in practice. You save $2M and use that money to bolster the rest of your team and hope that does more to win games than spending $2M more on a marginal improvement at kicker. (Myers made a 28-yard game-winner against Miami 2 weeks ago.)

    • I’m really glad there are people like Chase pointing out the importance of special teams — and that their importance extends beyond last-minute field goals, missed PATs, and return touchdowns.

      I think punter is an especially rich opportunity for teams to exploit the market, because NFL teams currently do not value the right skills in punters. Most teams want someone with a big leg and a high gross average. I did a study a few years ago and found that gross punting average is a meaningless stat. Literally, it has NO value except to the extent that it correlates with net average. In fact, gross average has a slight negative correlation with winning: the higher a team’s gross punting average, the less likely that it’s a good team. This is probably effect more than cause, but the stat should be ignored in favor of an approach like Chase’s.

      I would love to have a good placekicker, but there’s no excuse not to have an above-average punter, because you can find them cheap: skills like ball placement, hang time, backspin, and coffin corner are all undervalued. I bet at any given time, there are multiple punters who can deliver a league-average net with above-average skill at pinning opponents deep and preventing big returns, who are unsigned free agents, and could probably be had for the league minimum.

      Also, with Myers in Week 2, he actually went 3/3 (plus 2 XPs, which we talk about now), including a 58-yarder at the end of the first half, and the game-winner in the final minute. It was a great game, and probably the reason he didn’t get cut after this Sunday’s misadventures.

      • Richie

        Punting is one of those things where I have to assume I just don’t understand enough about the game and/or strategy.

        One of the games I was watching recently (I can’t remember which one), it was late in the game and the punt returner had a big day so far. The announcers said “the punter will surely try to punt away from returner here”. It seemed perfectly logical to me. But no, they punted right down the middle. The return was minimal, so it didn’t matter. But the situation really seemed to call for punting out of bounds. I have no idea why they didn’t.

        Likewise, so many people complain about the lack of coffin-corner kicks. Punting to the sideline seems like such a no-brainer. But it is so rare for punters to actually attempt to punt a ball where it is not returnable. Why, why why?

        • Yeah, it’s weird and kind of frustrating. For coffin corner specifically, I think there are several factors:

          1. It’s hard. Harder than it seems, I’m told.

          2. It’s a lost art. Punters haven’t been coached to do this for years, so no one’s any good at it.

          3. It works against the personal interests of a smart punter. Most fans, media, and even coaches blame long returns on the coverage team rather than the punter. But if you try to angle it out of bounds and get a short kick, that’s blamed on you. Also, gross average is still the most common stat to judge punters, and a long punt down the middle raises your gross, while a short punt with no return harms your gross average. I call this type of self-interested behavior by punters Lechlery.

          I know this seems absurd, to the point of being hard to believe, but I think there are only a handful of coaches who devote any real attention to special teams. When teams have multiple punters on the roster during preseason, they almost always keep the guy whose gross average is better, even if he’s far behind in other, more meaningful stats. I truly believe that a majority of NFL head coaches don’t understand what skills are valuable in punters. All they look for is a strong leg.

  • Andy Barall

    A significant portion of the credit for the results of McAfee’s punts should go to the coverage unit, especially Winston Guy, one of the league’s best gunners so far this season.

  • Richie

    I am in a fantasy football league where we use punters. We get points for net average and for punting inside the 20. I wish myfantasyleague.com had a way to give us points for “punt above expectation” as you describe it.