This offseason has now seen a long-time punter with a prominent reputation leave his team. The outcry has been immense. I’m talking, of course, of Shane Lechler, who was not re-signed by the Oakland Raiders. The six time first team all-pro will try to keep his career going in Houston at age 36. Wait, you didn’t know that Lechler was no longer with the Raiders after he declined (relative to his own standards) last year?
You may have missed hearing about Lechler, but you no doubt caught the news that Chris Kluwe was released by the Vikings. The Star-Tribune noted that he had a career best in net yards per punt and said “was inconsistent at times but still had a productive campaign overall.” Did he? The whispers and suggestions immediately came that this was connected to his outspoken advocacy on issues like gay rights.
I like to measure punters by something I call punting percentage, which looks to put things into context by where the kick occurred. If a punter plays on a team that punts closer to mid-field a lot, the average will be reduced because of the shorter field. This tries to put into context, and also evaluate things like returns and touchbacks. It’s more a measure of the overall punting unit, since returns are included, and we can debate how much the individual punter affects that (certainly, some, based on hang time and forcing fair catches). Basically, what I do is get a percentage for each punt based on net yards over 60, for all punts that are inside a team’s own 40 yard line. For those closer to the opponent’s end zone, the denominator is the distance to goal minus 1 yard.
For example, a punt from the opponent’s 41 yard line that resulted in a fair catch at the 9 yard line would result in a punt percentage of .800 (32/40). That net 32 yards would lower most net averages, but is actually a very good result. I take all punts (excluding blocks) and average each of those scores for each punter. Here are the 2012 results for the leading punter for each team.
These rankings aren’t climate adjusted at this time, though I did take a look at which stadiums were the best for visiting punters. Certainly playing in a dome is an advantage for Kluwe’s raw numbers, since the Metrodome was in the top 8 in opponent average. Any weather adjustment would just move Kluwe further down this list, past many of the punters toiling outdoors in the north and east.
Looking at the list, Lechler is right there in 2012, though the former Oakland punter had a much better career to that point. He is playing elsewhere. Harris is no longer with Detroit. Powell is a young guy in Buffalo (see: cheap) and nothing is prohibiting them from bringing competition. Rocca is the one veteran that was re-signed this offseason at the bottom of this list. Hodges is a free agent. Butler was a rookie, but the team has brought in Moorman as competition. Nortman was a rookie. Koenen just signed a big contract, and that rating is largely due to poor special teams coverage, where 2/3 of the returns in Tampa Bay gained 10+ yards last season. McBriar was released.
So, basically, in addition to Kluwe, most of the veterans at the bottom of this list will be punting elsewhere next year, if at all. If Lechler can play somewhere else, so can Kluwe. While the easy talking point is Kluwe’s advocacy, the simpler answer is that he was below average, is over the age of thirty, and especially when you consider he was kicking in a dome, is near the bottom of the rankings and easily replaceable. His biggest issue appears to be age and salary, not opinion.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]