Placekickers who punt, punters who place-kick
A brutal hit while having a punt blocked sidelined San Diego’s Mike Scifres with a broken left collarbone.
In came placekicker Nick Novak, charged with one of the most important roles in special teams. He hadn’t punted since high school and barely practices it as a pro.
Yet he was more than comfortable with the challenge.
“I can do it,” Novak said after punts of 27, 33, 45, 51, 46 and 38 yards in the loss to New England on Dec. 7. “I can’t do it on Mike’s level, but I feel I can certainly get the job done. The pressure’s not there, because I’m sure the expectation is, just catch it and kick it and get it out. ... If you mess up, ‘Well, he doesn’t punt.’ If he does well, it’s more of a ‘Wow’ kind of thing.
“There really was no pressure there.”
Ah, but usually there is tons of pressure on a placekicker replacing a punter in a game, and vice versa. The only similarities between the jobs are that both players make a living with their foot, and their specialties are critical to field position and scoring.
Because there are so many differences in the mechanics of each job, rarely do the kickers and punters practice the other’s role.
“Punting’s very linear, and your swing is more straight up and through the ball,” explained Minnesota field goal kicker Blair Walsh. “Kicking, you’re coming around it a little bit more and you’re worried about a plant.”
Still, as a pro, Walsh has studied what the Vikings’ Jeff Locke and other NFL punters do, and believes he could handle the assignment. He even spends some time on Fridays working on punting.
“You could use the similarities between the two, whether it’s locking your foot out or having an explosive motion through it,” he said, adding that “overdoing it” must be avoided.
“There’s definitely similarities you could carry over to each position to make you successful at both,” Walsh said. “I’ve been around it long enough where I’ve seen a lot of good punters do the right technique, so you sort of emulate it a little bit in your mind.
“But I think the biggest thing would just be getting used to the live rush coming at you.”
Indeed, the rush to get to the punter is a sprint, entirely different and probably more dangerous than attempts to block field goals.
While NFL coaching staffs and personnel people try to account for all situations, an in-game injury or illness to a placekicker or punter often falls outside their preparation. San Diego was extremely fortunate that Novak was so successful; the Chargers have a similar history because Scifres did the placement work in the 2011 opener when Nick Kaeding injured his knee.
That’s also how Novak wound up in San Diego.
Generally, though, it’s a desperate spot when one of those guys goes down in a game.
“I was 70 percent in college, which is plenty enough to get you cut in the NFL,” Saints punter Thomas Morstead said of his placekicking. “But I’d be a very serviceable backup, I would think, if they need me in a pinch.
“I can kick it a long ways, but whether it goes between the sticks, you know. ...”
There’s the rub.
“They’re so different, but I’m going to say it’s probably more difficult filling in as a field goal kicker just because there’s not much room for error,” Jets punter Ryan Quigley said. “Punting, you’ve got the whole field to work with. It’s like, when you’re punting, you can just say, ‘OK, we’re going to punt it down the middle and hopefully it stays in bounds and you get a good 40 yards out of it.’”
Punters and placekickers find good reasons not to practice the other guy’s art. San Francisco’s Phil Dawson, now in his 16th season making field goals and extra points, works on punting occasionally. He notes “the more I do it, the worse I get.”
But he points out with a sharp jab that punter Andy Lee trying Dawson’s specialty “would be worse.”
Some teams even had other players as the backup punter or placekicker. On the Saints, it’s second-string quarterback Luke McCown behind Morstead. For Philadelphia, wide receiver Riley Cooper backs up placekicker Cody Parkey.
Perhaps the patron saint of replacement kickers is Craig Hentrich, who punted for 16 NFL seasons. Hentrich was a standout at both jobs at Notre Dame, won a Super Bowl as a punter with Green Bay and played in another with Tennessee.
He went 3 for 3 on field goals of 49, 34 and 33 yards in the 2003 opener after placekicker Joe Nedney suffered a season-ending knee injury. Hentrich hadn’t made a field goal since 1995.
“I’ve seen some punters, actually, step in and have good games kicking when the kicker went down. The most noticeable I’ve ever seen is ... Hentrich,” Saints placekicker Shayne Graham said. “But he was also a respected kicker at Notre Dame in college because he did both, so he had the background for it.”
Nobody does both in the NFL anymore, except in a pinch.
So if Quigley gets called on to replace Folk during Sunday’s finale, what’s his philosophy?
“Shoot, I’d tell them to back it up and put me out there from anywhere,” he said with a laugh. “Nah, that’s the way I think because I’d just crank it and use my leg strength. But who knows where it’s going?
AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker, Dave Campbell and Rob Maaddi, and Sports Writers Janie McCauley, Joe Kay, Dennis Waszak Jr., Bernie Wilson and Brett Martel contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL