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Punting Takes a Left Turn

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 1/11/2018 Jenny Vrentas

© Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images Last week, Bill Belichick marked the occasion of embarking on his 14th postseason with the Patriots by discussing a topic near and dear to his heart. “It’s great to be sitting here on Tuesday,” Belichick told reporters on a conference call, “talking about all this punting.”

He spent some 1,000 words talking about techniques and strategies for punting, something that, incidentally, the Patriots have done fewer times than all but two other NFL teams since Belichick arrived in Foxborough in 2000. Toward the end of one of his answers, he referenced the Patriots having “a lot” of left-footed punters since he’s been the head coach, which is something of an understatement. In fact, save for a handful of fill-in games by righties, the Patriots have exclusively employed left-footed punters under Belichick.

It’s a quirk that’s taken on something of its own mystique. Adding to the left-footed lore is the fact that there’s something of a spate of lefties in today’s NFL. Back in 2000, there were just five lefty punters on opening day. This season, 10 lefties have punted for NFL teams. That includes every punter in the NFC East, and there were four lefties in this year’s playoffs field: New England’s Ryan Allen, Philadelphia’s Donnie Jones, Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt and Carolina’s Michael Palardy.

“I don’t know if the lefty has been a takeover,” wonders Dallas’s Chris Jones, “or if it’s just been something that’s progressively become more prevalent.”

Belichick has, on many occasions, insisted that his run of left-footed punters is merely a “coincidence,” though we have long since learned that little taking place in Foxborough is coincidental—almost everything is tactical. His current lefty, of course, echoes his boss. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Allen says. “You can be either right or left, so it’s a 50-50 chance to me.”

Except the odds are almost certainly far more skewed. Discerning the percentage of left-footers in the United States is complicated by the fact than many of us have no idea which is our dominant foot. But, with only about 10% of the population being left-handed, having close to one-third of punters in the league being left-footed appears to be outside the norm. (By comparison, there was just a single left-footed kicker in the league this year, Oakland’s Giorgio Tavecchio).

The simple answer is that left-footed punts spin the opposite direction, counterclockwise (from the punter’s perspective), presenting an extra challenge for returners who are used to reading a right-footer’s spin. From the punt’s apex, a left-footed ball will fade to the returner’s right, whereas most returners are used to catching right-footed balls that fade to their left. That has the potential to cause a returner to hesitate or, even better for the punting team, to muff the catch. The search for answers usually ends there.

But how much is the advantage, actually? And is there something else at play when it comes to Belichick’s love of lefties—something that the coach (shockingly) isn’t letting on? One of his former punters thinks so, and he provided us with a theory steeped in science.

It’s entirely possible—in fact, it’s very likely—you’ve watched NFL games without pondering the footedness of the punters. Whether or not that’s the case, we ask that you channel your inner Belichick, because we’re going to be talking about all this (left-footed) punting.

Dustin Colquitt’s left-footedness began before he was born, according to his mother. He was a breech baby, and when the doctors delivered him via C-section, they noticed immediately a big bruise on his left heel. “From kicking in the womb,” Colquitt says. “That’s a weird deal, but my mom loves to tell that story.”

His father, Craig, who won two Super Bowls as the Steelers punter during their Steel Curtain dynasty years, is right-footed. So is Dustin’s younger brother, Britton, an eight-year veteran currently punting for the Cleveland Browns. And so is first cousin Jimmy, who punted for the University of Tennessee and briefly for the Seahawks, and third cousin Travis, who punted for Marshall. In a family of punters, Dustin is the only lefty. And, like most lefties, his preference appears to be a random act of biology. “We have a picture when I’m about two years old or so,” he says, “and I'm kicking left-footed.”

Allen, the Patriots punter, describes the right side of his body as largely useless. Same with Jeff Locke, who punted five games for Detroit this year. “I had no chance of getting a soccer scholarship because I could only use my left foot,” Locke says, “so I gravitated toward football.” Chris Hanson, New England’s punter from 2007-09, was the rare ambidextrous specialist who in high school and college place-kicked with his right leg and punted with his left leg. It served to decrease the workload on each leg, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. “I started kicking field goals and kickoffs with my right leg,” he says, “but it was more natural to punt with my left foot.”

Oddly enough, not all left-footers are left-handed, even though being a left-footed punter requires dropping the ball with your left hand. “I throw right, golf right, swing a bat right, write right, eat right,” Donnie Jones says. “Do nothing with my left hand except for drop a ball.” Dustin Colquitt is also right-handed, so when he began punting left-footed, his father made him juggle golf balls and brush his teeth with his left hand to nimble up his drop hand. As for Chris Jones, well . . . “I write left-handed, and I eat left-handed,” he says. “Anything to throw, play basketball, golf, bat, all that stuff is right-handed. I shoot a gun left-handed. I shoot a bow right-handed.” He pauses. “Yeah, I’m all over the place.”

Most of us have some sort of fascination with lefties, in all aspects of life. Ever clicked on an “Are left-handed people smarter?” article, or had affection for a left-handed pitcher, or marveled at how smooth a southpaw’s shot looks in the NBA? Even Adam Vinatieri, the future Hall of Fame kicker, admits he used to look on enviously at the “very pretty swing” of lefty placekicker David Akers. The very thing that sparks our curiosity about lefties—they are different from the norm—is what gives them their theoretical edge as punters.

Before catching on as Washington’s punter, Tress Way was an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma in camp with the Bears in the summer of 2013. His teammate was Devin Hester, the all-time great returner, who told Way that the lefty spin threw even him for a loop. “He was actually one of the first ones that said, whenever I wrapped one up in a tight spiral, and it goes pretty high up into the air, it kind of spins backward on him and looks different,” Way recalls. “Or one that I maybe don’t hit as clean, has a different spin on it, and it’s tough to read.”

In Belichick’s earlier days coaching special teams with the Giants in the 80s, they had right-footed punters, Dave Jennings and Sean Landeta. But during weeks when they were facing a left-footed punter, they’d have returner Phil McConkey practice handling lefty kicks, served up from an unexpected source: Right-handed quarterback Phil Simms, it turns out, was a pretty good left-footed punter. Now it’s a common practice around the league for teams with a righty punter to bring in a lefty for a workout the same week they’re preparing to face a lefty. They’ll have their returners field the balls for some bonus practice work. The free-agent punters don’t mind, because a workout keeps their name circulating on the league’s transactions ledger.

Case in point: In November, the Broncos, who have right-footed punter Riley Dixon, brought in Locke, then a free agent, for a workout. The previous week, returner Isaiah McKenzie had muffed a punt by Allen, his fifth muff of the season and third against a lefty. Denver was next facing the Bengals, who also have a lefty punter, Kevin Huber, so this workout gave their returners some extra lefty practice.

Back in 2005, in the months leading up to the draft, Colquitt recalls a Chiefs contingent of head coach Dick Vermeil, GM Carl Peterson and special teams coach Frank Gansz, Jr., visiting him at Tennessee. The Chiefs had gone through three different punters the previous season, and they told him they were likely to use a draft pick on one that spring. Colquitt had been a first-team all-SEC player for his penchant to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line, but he says the Chiefs also mentioned his ability to making opposing returners fumble. They drafted Colquitt in the third round, and a few months later, after the lefty’s punts in practice sparked a bad case of fumble-itis from Dante Hall, the returner extraordinaire likened them to “a Roger Clemens curveball coming from the sky.”

“Now that you have more lefties, I think people get used to it a little bit more,” Colquitt says. “But it's most definitely still a point of concern and a topic. I’ve never heard anybody say, We are facing a right-footed punter this week, ever. But it’s always mentioned if there is a lefty.”

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about the trickiness of left-footed punts. In October, during a tie game midway through the second quarter in Foxborough, Chargers returner Travis Benjamin muffed an Allen punt. As he scrambled back to scoop up the loose ball, his momentum took him into his own end zone, where he was tackled for a Patriots safety. Antonio Brown, All-Pro receiver, muffed one return this year, against Colquitt. Tyreek Hill, one of the best returners in the league, muffed two punts this season; both were against lefties. The first muff of this postseason, by Tennessee’s Adoree' Jackson on Saturday, came off Colquitt’s left foot.

But, on the whole, are left-footed punts are more likely to be muffed than right-footed ones? Pro Football Focus shared their data on the number of muffs, per punter, from 2013 to 2017. The punter with the most muffs over the past five years, 18, is Oakland’s Marquette King, a righty. Two of the top three are lefties—Colquitt ranked second with 16 and Locke ranked third with 15—as well as eight of the top 20.

This data is not uniform, since these are raw numbers across a group of punters who have played a different number of seasons, games and snaps. So, using the Pro Football Focus data in combination with NFL.com stats on the number of punts by each punter over the time frame, we calculated the percentage of left-footed vs. right-footed punts that are muffed. Over the past five years, a sample size of more than 12,000 punts, 3.1% of left-footed punts have been muffed compared to 2.5% of right-footed punts. This season, 3.7% of lefty punts were muffed vs. 2.9% of right-footed punts. In summary: lefty punts are somewhere between 0.5% and 1% more likely to be muffed than righty punts.

That’s a small margin, but the NFL is a game of very small margins. “In [Belichick’s] mind, it might make a difference in one or two plays in a year,” says Vinatieri, who spent six seasons playing under Belichick. “If a guy muffs a ball, and they get the ball, it may make a difference in the outcome of the game.”

On the other hand, there are more factors than the likeliness of muffs that come into play when signing a punter. Two of the best in the league right now, Johnny Hekker and Sam Koch, are right-footed punters who both use a diverse range of different kicks to suit different situations and catch returners off guard. Donnie Jones, the longest-tenured lefty in the league, has never been told his footedness was a factor in why the team signed him. Nor have any of Belichick’s three most recent punters heard him mention a preference for lefties.

“No, no,” says Zoltan Mesko, Patriots punter from 2010-12. “That would be giving up a step in the negotiation ladder.”

In our quest for answers about the left-footed tradition in New England, Mesko has an intriguing theory. In Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002, there is a dominant wind pattern. It comes in through the open end of the stadium, and blows across the field on the diagonal, from right to left. In other words, if you are facing the open end, and the goalposts are at 12 o’clock, the wind blows toward 8 o’clock. Belichick himself acknowledged this in November of Gillette’s inaugural season: “[The wind] runs part of the way down the field at the open end, at the lighthouse end, but then it seems to quarter more toward from the home bench [the right side of the field, if you’re facing the open end] to the visiting bench.”

Going this direction challenges punters and kickers, because the wind is in your face. But lefties have an important advantage: That right-to-left current accelerates the ball’s counterclockwise rotation, which means greater distance. In Week 17, for example, Allen hit a beautiful 52-yard punt into the wind in this direction, pinning the Jets at their own 14-yard line.

If you want to really get in the weeds (we warned you) there’s also the added factor that lefties have a bigger margin for error against the catastrophe of a mishit when punting into the Gillette Stadium wind. That’s because the drop can also be affected by the wind; in this case, a right-to-left current can turn the nose of the ball to the left as it drops from the hand to the foot. A lefty aiming to strike a broader sweet spot on the belly of the ball aims the nose of the ball slightly toward the right; but, if the wind moves the ball to the left, he can still hit a good ball. It’s the opposite for righties. With this wind direction, a righty—pointing the nose of the ball slightly to the left—is at risk of the wind turning the ball too far toward its horizontal axis. If that happens, the result is a shank straight into the left sideline.

Punting the opposite way at Gillette, the direction of the wind would be preferable for righties, but it’s not as much of an advantage since punts going with the wind are often the long-distance, low hang time variety that are returned farther and have a lower net average. “That stadium,” Mesko says, “is kind of made for lefties.” After the 2013 regular season ended, he was added to the Bengals roster for a home playoff game against the Chargers when long-time (and current) Bengals punter Kevin Huber was out with a broken jaw. Huber is also a lefty, and Mesko noticed a similar wind pattern in Paul Brown Stadium.

So, maybe it has something to do with the stadium wind. Maybe it’s an economical way to obtain a slight edge, rather than, say, shelling out a six-year, $21 million contract for Hekker. Belichick, of course, would like you to believe it is neither. He had righties in New York, and also when he was the head coach in Cleveland, Tom Tupa. “I'm not for or against left-footed punters or right-footed punters,” he says. “I am for good punters.”

But as you watch the playoffs this weekend, you might get a kick out of looking for the lefties. Colquitt, even after 13 seasons in the NFL, still enjoys studying his fellow southpaws on film. “Just like when you when you watch a ball game and you see somebody that has a sweet shot that’s left handed, it looks so clean,” he says. “So, occasionally after games you say to a guy, Hey man, love watching that left foot on film.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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