The N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Might Be … a Punter? (NYT)

The N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Might Be … a Punter?

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Ask Hekker about his dopeness, and he deflects it. He subscribes to the Zen concept of mushin, imparted to him by Fassel, which means a mind cleared of all distraction. Hekker has forgotten many of his punts, and when the long-snapper Jake McQuaide asks whether he liked a snap, he remembers only that he caught it.

“I would like to think I’m a top-10 guy in the league,” Hekker said, “but really I have a lot more work to do.”

During the spring, Hekker grew disgusted when he reviewed all 98 of his punts from last season and determined that many did not land where he wanted them. Again, this was the best punting season in history. Fassel said Hekker has yet to peak, which only reinforces Snead’s claim that he might be the best punter ever.

That claim is not drenched in hyperbole, and does not insinuate any bias from a man who in September tacked two more years onto the six-year, $18 million deal Hekker signed in 2014. John Turney, a prominent football historian, is working on a project about punting, and he said Hekker, three times a first-team All-Pro, has produced a statistically overpowering trail that places him on a trajectory to join Ray Guy as the only full-time punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know what else you can ask of a specialist,” Turney said.

For the influence that Hekker wields on a game, his capacity for maximizing field position, diminishing scoring probabilities and running a fake, Turney considers Hekker the best special-teams player in the league.

Quite a compliment, but what if Hekker is even more than that? He does not pass like Tom Brady or run like Kareem Hunt or catch like Antonio Brown, or come close to playing nearly as many snaps as they do. Hekker, who also holds for Zuerlein, has taken only 31.9 percent of the Rams’ special-teams snaps.

Hekker Stands Apart

Johnny Hekker of the Rams leads in two of punting’s most important statistics: net yards and pinning the opponent inside their 20.

Percent of punts not returned to opponent’s 20-yard line

Percent of punts not returned to opponent’s 20-yard line

But when Hekker jogs onto the field on fourth down, his mind uncluttered and his limbs loose, and with 1.2 seconds to catch the snap and rotate the ball and drill it toward a small target area some 45 yards away, he almost never makes mistakes discernible to the naked eye.

And because of that, maybe, just maybe, Hekker does his job better than anyone else in the league.

Sustaining Excellence

Sitting in his office, arms folded, brows furrowed, Snead pondered that possibility. He inherited a 2-14 team in February 2012, two and a half months before the draft. The Rams needed receivers and defensive linemen and cornerbacks.

They also needed a punter.

Fassel attended Hekker’s pro day at Oregon State and wanted him. Early in the seventh and final round, Snead mulled picking Hekker.

The guy actually had a punt in college that went backwards,” Snead remembered saying that day.

Figuring that the 31 other teams had seen it, he decided to take a linebacker.

Hekker’s friends remind him all the time of the punt, against Wisconsin during his senior season. It traveled minus-4 yards. It keeps him grounded, as does what happened after the season, when he went searching for an agent because none deemed him worth contacting.

After signing with the Rams, Hekker began watching film of punters he respected, an exercise that endures. He marveled at the technique used by Thomas Morstead of New Orleans, quiet and refined. He gaped at how purely Dustin Colquitt of Kansas City strikes the ball, especially in a venue as unforgiving as Arrowhead Stadium. He admired the misdirection deployed by Sam Koch of Baltimore, how he would show left, then crush the kick right.

“I revere these guys,” Hekker said. “I need their posters on my wall. They keep me humble. I watch them punt and I think I’ve got a long way to go.”

Photo
Hekker is always a threat to throw from the punt formation.

Credit
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The craft has evolved since Sammy Baugh let ’em rip 75 years ago, Turney said, cycling through several phases until this current era, which rewards those few punters who can kick consistently with power and precision. The two most revealing indicators, Turney said, are net average (how far the ball travels minus return yardage or touchbacks) and the ratio of inside-the-20 punts to touchbacks. Hekker holds the career record in each, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. (Those statistics began being tracked in 1976.)

To sustain that excellence, Hekker relies on a catalog of punts. A sampling: the end-over-end one that swaps distance for control, the dastardly knuckler, the directional spiral and the famed banana, adapted from Australian rules football. Spinning sideways, the banana fooled Indianapolis returner Quan Bray in its regular-season debut, in Week 1, skidding at the 11 before helicoptering out of bounds at the 7.

Many punters mess with the banana in practice, but few have the confidence or audacity to try it in a game. Hekker’s next trick could be the punt he has been fiddling with: It spins as if kicked with his left foot.

“I don’t think Johnny’s afraid of anybody,” said Jeff Feagles, the N.F.L. career leader in punts. “I think they’re afraid of him.”

Sometimes they are afraid he won’t punt at all. By his own admission, Hekker was a quarterback who punted at Bothell High School in suburban Seattle. And the Rams capitalized on his passing talent immediately.

Against San Francisco as a rookie, Hekker completed a 21-yard pass from his own end zone. Then, with about five minutes left and the Rams trailing by 4 points, he connected on a 19-yarder that keyed a go-ahead scoring drive. In all, his 13 passes since 2012 – with eight completions, all for first downs or touchdowns – are 11 more than any other punter has attempted, according to Sportradar. (He has also passed for a 2-point conversion.)

Johnny Hekker completing a pass on a fake punt. Video by Sport My Life

Fassel said the Rams have called about 40 other fakes with Hekker that they checked out of at the line of scrimmage. His versatility vexes opposing coaches who every week struggle with how to set up a runback and guard against a fake. “We’ve been really vanilla against him,” said Brian Schneider, the Seahawks’ special-teams coach, whose team has been foiled by Hekker twice on fakes, after a September practice. “We don’t have much of a choice.”

Demanding Standards

Hekker developed that arm, and a fierce competitive streak, playing football with his four older brothers. His fear of losing motivated him across his childhood, when he would turn household chores – like carrying grocery bags into the house – into contests.

After high school, once he had committed to pursuing punting in college, Hekker learned fundamentals at a camp in Alabama run by Mike McCabe, a former all-American punter at Illinois State.

“He wasn’t very good,” McCabe said.

As a walk-on at Oregon State, Hekker beat out Ryan Allen (now the Patriots’ punter) as a freshman for the starting job. Throughout college, Hekker returned to Alabama to train with McCabe, who said he now learns from him.

On the practice field, competing against himself, Hekker is no less demanding. This season he is trying for three or fewer touchbacks (he has one so far) and for what he considers excellent direction on eight of every 10 punts. He aims for a narrow alleyway two or three yards from the sideline.

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November 2, 2017 at 09:24AM