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Speaking to the press after a superlative game, 49ers punter Andy Lee tends to credit God for his on-field mastery. If the Lord does intervene in kicks, it's happening across the National Football League. Football fans who aren't grumbling about stalled drives might notice we are enjoying a golden age of punting. Eight of the top-10 all-time yards-per-punt leaders are suiting up in today's NFL, and this year's 15th best punter would have been the league's yards-per-boot leader in 2002. Former Oakland Raider great Ray Guy — long the barometer for excellence in the position — currently ranks 78th in league history at 42.4 yards per punt.
Clearly, punting in the NFL is undergoing a revolution — and the Bay Area is its Bastille. Lee this season averaged 50.9 yards per punt; Oakland's Shane Lechler was just behind at 50.8. In fact, Lee's net average (including opponents' return)of 44.6 yards per punt almost equaled the league's gross average of 45 pre-return. "These guys are just bigger, stronger, and better than we were," says Barry Helton, the punter on the 49ers' Super Bowl-winning teams of 1988 and '89. Helton began punting in college, after being named Colorado Player of the Year three consecutive seasons — at quarterback. But for today's generation,"It's something they've trained for since they were little kids."
Punters are, on average, slightly taller and heavier than in Helton's day — and giants like Lechler (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), Brandon Fields (6-foot-5, 245), and Sav Rocca (6-foot-5, 265) aren't uncommon. Rocca, a former Australian rules football star, is one of many foreigners who introduced new punting techniques and expanded the position'stalent pool.
"The money has gotten so big that more kids are saying 'Man, you can do that?'" notes veteran Jacksonville Jaguars punter Nick Harris, who shattered collegiate records at UC Berkeley. Promising youth punters now hone their niche skills at academies run by NFL alums. More than a third of today's starting punters trained at Guy's camps.
But today's kickers aren't just bigger and better. Harris also cites the Pythagorean theorem. He notes that a kick down the middle of the field will travel farther than a kick to the sideline — and more coaches are allowing their punters to emulate Lechler and let 'er rip, rather than following the"directional punting" strategy perfectedby Guy.
Finally, while punters of the past were stuck kicking the rock-hard new balls preferred by quarterbacks — though some were known to soften up balls with baseball bats or a spin in the dryer — that's no longer the case. A dozen "K-Balls" are used only for kicking plays; teams are allowed to "break in" a handful shortly before game time (though not with bats or dryers; "there's a guy who watches," Harris notes).
If you're scoring at home, credit money, specialization, training, Pythagoras, and consistent balls. And, per Lee, God.