The job of an NFL punter used to be quite simple. He merely had to kick the ball as far and as high as possible so that the punt team had ample time to run down the field and prevent the punt returner from gaining significant yardage. However, modern NFL punters have figured out how to direct the football away from dangerous returners, make the ball spin and bounce, and put the opposing team in an unfavorable field position. For this reason, punting has gone from a widely disregarded aspect of football to one that is thought to heavily influence the outcomes of games. But is this newfound credit deserved? Let’s look at the punting performances of the NFL’s best teams, specifically those that make it to the playoffs, and find out.
The NFL’s top teams make it difficult for their opponents to score, and one way they can do this is by maximizing the distance that the opposing team’s offense has to cover before they’re in field goal range or likely to score a touchdown. That being said, we would expect the teams competing in the playoffs to have a lot of punts inside the 20-yard line (IN20). An analysis of the 60 teams that have competed in the playoffs since 2014 reveals that only 25 of them had above-average IN20 totals. Furthermore, in each of the last 5 seasons, there were more playoff teams ranked in the bottom half of the league for IN20 than there were playoff teams ranked in the top 10 for IN20, as seen in the table below.
Keep in mind that IN20 statistics don’t take the punter’s position on the field and his total number of punts into account, so these results aren’t enough to conclude that punts inside the 20-yard line are ineffective. What we do know is that teams can win games and advance to the playoffs without constantly punting inside the 20-yard line.
NET, or net punting average, is the total number of yards that a punt gains for a certain team after the return is factored in. It essentially shows how many yards are between the punting team’s line of scrimmage and where the returning team is declared down, making it a commonly accepted statistical tool for evaluating punters. For the last 5 years, the NFL’s average NET has been about 41 yards, and 5-7 of the 12 teams that made it to the playoffs each season had above-average NET stats. Their ranks for NET, however, were mediocre.
In the last 5 years, 21 playoff teams have been ranked in the top 10 in the NFL for NET and 28 teams have been ranked 17th-32nd. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, the best teams in the NFL aren’t necessarily the teams with the greatest NET stats.
Percentage of Punts Returned
By reviewing recent NFL playoff history, I was able to determine that most teams competing in the playoffs successfully limit their percentages of punts returned. Specifically, about 62% of the teams that appeared in the playoffs in the last 5 years had a smaller percentage of punts returned than the “typical” team in the league. Additionally, 10 of the 60 playoff teams were ranked in the top 5 in the NFL for percentage of punts returned and 25 were ranked in the top 10.
These findings suggest that many playoff teams employ punters who are skilled at punting balls with superb placement (near a sideline and/or close to the end zone) and lengthy hang time, making them very hard to return.
About half of the playoff teams that we’ve seen in the last 5 seasons had better than average IN20, NET, and percentage of punts returned stats, but their ranks for the three statistics were often unimpressive. This probably means that the teams that make it to the playoffs don’t set themselves apart through stellar punting, so teams don’t need to have veteran, Pro Bowl, multimillion-dollar punters on their rosters in order to play in the postseason. That being said, general managers can create cap space by hiring cheaper punters who may not be one of the best punters in the league but are dependable nonetheless. The GMs can then use the money that they’ve saved to hire players in other positions that have been statistically proven to increase a team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs.
About the Author
Courtney Williams graduated summa cum laude from Berry College (GA) in 2017. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and she wants to use her knowledge of statistics, probability, and more advanced mathematics to help sports organizations make good business- and player-related decisions.