The Giants’ Jeff Feagles was probably watching the Raiders’ Shane Lechler work when their teams met yesterday, a punter from a fading era admiring the work of one of those who will eventually make his kind extinct.
Feagles and Lechler represent the intersection of punting eras. Feagles’ pinpoint directional skill is going the way of the leather helmet, replaced by booming spiral kicks like Lechler’s as well as end-over-end punts that have become the norm in the NFL because they are easier to control, more difficult to catch and harder to block.
Feagles is in his 22nd season; when he began, his style — the soaring tight spiral angled softly toward a sideline — was the standard. But that was before the advent of 102kg punters like Lechler, who relies on leg strength to pin opponents deep in their territory. Feagles has admiringly labeled Lechler’s kicks, including a 67-yarder on Oct. 4, “inhumanly.”
The decline of the directional kick was on display recently when New England punter Chris Hanson, hoping to pin back the Baltimore Ravens, eschewed the sideline for end-over-end punts — and watched as two of them rolled into the end zone for touchbacks, a punting sin. That prompted Patriots coach Bill Belichick to note the demise of the increasingly rare ability to put the ball into the corner where the goal line and the sideline meet.
“You hardly see anybody go for the sidelines any more,” Belichick said. “Show me a punter who coffin corners. You don’t see it. They don’t do it.”
The end-over-end kick — it’s called the rugby kick, because that’s what it resembles — is much easier to develop. It gives a punter better control of distance because it requires less calibration of how hard to boot the ball.
It emerged about a dozen years ago and is now the preferred punt around the league. But there is no agreement about who introduced it to the NFL. Feagles said he thinks it was San Diego punter Darren Bennett, who brought it with him from his home country, Australia, in 1995.
The kick requires a punter to hold the ball’s nose down and kick the bottom of the ball, so it spins back toward the kicking team. It has a long hang time, which allows the coverage team to get down the field. Because the ball spins backward, no matter how hard a punter kicks it, the ball will probably not travel farther than 40 yards.
When the ball is hit squarely and lands, it rolls very little and is supposed to move toward the kicking team — or away from the end zone and the touchback. Mike Westhoff, the Jets’ special-teams coach, compared the action to a golfer putting backspin on a chip so that when it hits a green, it spins backward. In 49 punts last season, Hanson had just 10 touchbacks, but put opponents inside their own 20-yard line 19 times.
The greatest push toward the rugby kick might have come in 1994 when Mike Holmgren, coaching Green Bay at the time, gave Craig Hentrich a hard time for having trouble controlling the distance of his punts. It was Hentrich’s first year in the NFL.
In a traditional spiral punt, the punter holds the ball with the nose at about 11 o’clock. Hentrich moved the nose to 2 o’clock and tried to match his foot with the angle of the ball, to take the spin off. The result was akin to baseball’s knuckleball. Westhoff said Hentrich’s punts dropped like a leaf from a tree, making it especially difficult to field cleanly.
HARD TO BLOCK
The rugby kick was quickly embraced because it is harder to block than a punt aimed to the sideline. When directional punters try to place their punts near the sideline at about the 10, they angle their bodies toward the corner. But many teams now leave their starting defense on the field looking for fake punts. That means a starting defensive end is lined up against the wing on the punt team, who may be a running back. It’s a gross mismatch. That forces a punter to kick down the middle of the field, where Westhoff wants it.
Except for Feagles. The ball naturally comes off Feagles’ foot at an angle so when it hits, it kicks to the right — ideal for sending it out of bounds. Feagles also takes some velocity off his leg swing, comparing it to trying to hit a bloop over a second baseman as opposed to swinging for the fences. And to avoid turning into the face of the pass rush, Feagles lines up behind a guard, so that when he angles himself, he is still behind the center — the strength of the protection.
Deception is not part of Feagles’ game — everybody has known for more than two decades that he is trying to kick the ball out of bounds. But he still does it with remarkable success. In the last 10 seasons, only six of his punts have been blocked. In 64 punts last season, he had just five touchbacks and he put the ball inside the 20-yard line 23 times. And, Feagles said, 80 percent of his punts hit outside the numbers on the edges of the field — a lost skill in a new age.
“If the ball is ever in the middle of the field, it’s because I didn’t kick it well,” Feagles said. “And I’m running down there because we’re in trouble.”
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