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Hang 'Em High
December 21, 2009
Never, it seems, have punters been more valuable to NFL teams. So who are these guys—and why hasn't a single punter been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
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December 21, 2009

Hang 'em High

Never, it seems, have punters been more valuable to NFL teams. So who are these guys—and why hasn't a single punter been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

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Lechler learned how to kick the ball as a four-year-old in East Bernard, Texas, a town of about 1,700 an hour's drive southwest of Houston. His father, Dale, was a coach at the local high school, and Shane liked to attend the football team's afternoon practices, at which the players offered him instruction on how to punt. Later, as a five-sport star at the same school, Lechler received scholarship offers from some of the top college programs in the country, including Texas, Notre Dame and LSU. Recruiters tagged him as an "athlete," meaning he excelled at more than one position. Lechler had potential; to devote that potential exclusively to punting seemed a waste. Nevertheless, that's what he did in College Station, where he averaged 44.7 yards a punt, then an NCAA record for punters with 250 or more career kicks. His gaudy numbers and booming punts prompted the Raiders to pick him in the fifth round in the 2000 draft.

The 6'2", 225-pound Lechler, 33, might be the most athletic punter since Ray Guy and Rohn Stark were in the league. Guy had starred as a defensive back at Southern Miss, intercepting 18 passes in three years, and he'd also handled the Golden Eagles' placekicking duties, once hitting a 61-yard field goal on a snowy field in Utah. Stark, who played on four pro teams over 16 years, 13 of them with the Colts, had been a decathlete at Florida State.

A four-time Pro Bowler, Lechler has a career average of 47.3 yards—the best in NFL history. He's always been able to kick the ball for distance, but early in his career he did so with less control and struggled with touchbacks. He became more accurate six years ago after learning how to drop punt from Darren Bennett, a former Australian Rules football player who was punting for the Chargers. The Raiders were in San Diego, and during pregame warmups Lechler stood back and watched Bennett hit punt after punt that fell close to the goal line and stuck there. Until that day, Lechler had pooch-punted the traditional way. That is, he'd taken his regular steps and struck the ball at a higher point in his leg swing, thus giving the ball more hang time and limiting the distance it traveled. Bennett was using a different technique. He was holding the nose of the ball downward and punching it with the top part of his foot. In flight the ball spun end over end and looked more like a kickoff than a punt, and when it hit the ground it either bounced straight up or chipped backward. Lechler asked Bennett for a lesson. "He went through it with me really quick, like in five minutes," says Lechler, who would start using the technique in game situations only a week later.

The drop punt has produced dramatic results for Lechler. In 2002 he finished the season with 18 punts inside the 20; in '08 he had 33, third most in the league. This year 25 of his 82 punts have been downed in the red zone. (Zastudil, now on injured reserve, has put an astonishing 25 of his 49 there.) "At the Coliseum," says Lechler, "I can make the ball do what I want about 80 to 85 percent of the time."

"This type of punting is taking over," says Chris Sailer, a kicking instructor and former All-America punter and kicker at UCLA. "It's something you almost have to do if you want to punt in college or the NFL. Over a third of punts now require the punter to pin the opposition deep, and [the drop] punt, which gives you more control, is the best way to do it."

The NFL single-game record for punts planted inside the 20 is eight. It's shared by Mark Royals (Steelers, 1994) and Bryan Barker (Jaguars, 1999), both of whom played before the drop punt became commonplace. Feagles, another traditionalist, has placed 551 punts inside the 20 in his career, the most since the NFL began keeping the statistic in 1976. "You've got to have the touch," says Feagles. "It's like a golfer who has touch around the green. Young [pros] and college punters will try to kick the ball as high and far as they can, but the NFL game today is more about field positioning and eliminating returns. Just 10 years ago there were probably only a handful of returners who could take a punt and run it back; the athletes covering the kicks were much better than the returners. But the tide has turned. Nowadays the returners are much better than the guys covering. What does that do to the punter? It puts more pressure on him to directional kick and to keep the ball out of the returners' hands."

Foot School

These days there is no shortage of instruction in the punting arts. The nation's oldest kicking camp was started in River Falls, Wis., in the mid-1970s. Held at a satellite campus of the University of Wisconsin, its staff included pro placekickers Jan Stenerud and Jim Bakken. Stenerud is the only kicker who didn't play another position who has been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Today the River Falls camp has only about 50 participants, 250 fewer than it attracted at its peak in the early years, but other camps around the country are thriving, and kicking consultants offer individual instruction to amateur and pro players. Punting has become big business, and competition among coaches isn't always friendly. Even Ray Guy is a partner in a kicking-camp business, American Football Specialists.

But as recently as 30 years ago, there was little scholarship on how best to kick a ball. When Bill Renner began research on his master's thesis in exercise physiology at Virginia Tech in 1982, he discovered that there was no consensus on the most effective way to punt. "The prevailing attitude then was simply that the more flexible you were, the higher and farther the ball went," says Renner, a kicking consultant and former Hokies and Packers punter who retired last year as the coach at West Springfield High in Virginia.

Renner's studies led him to believe that punting well depends more on the plant foot—or "accelerator," as he calls it—than on the foot that strikes the ball. "The more force you apply against the ground," he says, "the more speed you generate with your body."

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