By: Gareth Wood
Nobody wants to punt.
It’s an admission of failure. The offense has stalled — it has been decided the required yards cannot be gained on this drive. This wasn’t the game plan. Possession is to be surrendered. Bring out the punter.
Every team in the National Football League has a punter within their active roster. There is no league mandate that demands their inclusion but they are undoubtedly required. In the 2015 regular season, the thirty-two teams combined to punt 2,429 times. Last year saw the figure slightly decrease to 2,279. The reduction is hardly significant. Teams are still punting on average 4.5 times per game. Yet even the most rabid NFL fan would struggle to name more than a handful of the punting fraternity. The more casual fan may not recognize the name of the punter on the team they claim as their own.
The punter on the Oakland Raiders is Marquette King. By every measurement, in a role assessed and graded almost entirely on measurements, he is very good at his job.
The punter doesn’t feature in the ‘points scored’ table. In this, the era of fantasy football, there is no less glamorous role a player can assume on a team. It is incredibly easy to downplay the importance of the position and it’s bearing on a franchise’s win-loss record. They are most frequently brought out on 4th down to kick the ball back to the opposing team. The offensive team has chosen to do so rather than risk failing to gain another set of downs. They have accepted they will be turning over possession. It’s a decision taken to maintain the most favorable field position.
The simple logic — as a defensive entity I would much rather you start your offensive drive as far away from my end-zone as possible. I don’t want to simply gift you the ball where the failed attempt occurred. This turnover may be perilously deep in my own half. I want the ball far away. I want to maximize the distance you have to fight through to score points. Bring out the punter.
We run the risk of minimizing the punter’s talent when thinking only in terms of distance. This, of itself, seems counter-intuitive. We want it to go far. We understand the primary objective of the action. But, to simply employ a ‘kick-it-as-far-as-you-can’ principle doesn’t work when we consider the rules of the game. The ball shouldn’t be kicked out of bounds because it results in the receiving team being awarding a good starting position. Therefore the punter has a remit to direct the ball as close to the end-zone without entering it.
The receiving team will have stationed a player with the intention of catching the ball and determine their offensive starting point. If the opportunity presents itself the returner will immediately sprint back towards the line of scrimmage and, through evasive and powerful running, may burst beyond that marker. Thirteen punts in the 2015 season were returned to the end-zone. It stands to reason the punter doesn’t want to launch the kick directly at the returner. He also wants to ensure his punt coverage unit have adequate time to get from the line of scrimmage to where the ball lands or is caught. They will be intent on tackling and preventing the recipient from gaining additional yardage. What allows the special team unit the time to reach the returner is the hang-time of the punt.
A good punt has smart placement, adequate distance and will be in the air for as long as possible. It should not be overlooked that the punter, before kicking the ball, must successfully gather a long snap as the defensive unit hurtles towards him to try to block his kick.
The punter — the player that the team does not want to be on the field — has plenty opportunity to fail. The line on which we measure his success is one that runs on multiple axes.
Marquette King graduated from Fort Valley State University where he had honed his punting ability. It is rare, but not completely without precedent, that punters are drafted. King wasn’t. His body of work was enough to earn him a free agent contract in Oakland. He joined a roster alongside established punter Shane Lechler and was tipped to be his eventual successor. Injury derailed his 2012 season but the following year he claimed the job. Lechler had moved on to Houston and, following a brief training camp challenge from the veteran Chris Kluwe, the Raiders installed King as their starting punter.
Statistically, King fairs very well amongst his NFL peers. Direct numerical comparisons are only useful up to a point. He routinely sits in the top percentile of punts that result in the receiving team starting within their own twenty-yard line. But the nature of the position means punters are called upon as a result of action they play no part in. The opportunity to shine or fail will fluctuate from week to week. The variance in output draws doubt on the value of player comparison.
Removing numbers and comparison from the analysis leaves only what we see. When King punts the ball it soars. There is a temptation to suggest the ball ‘booms’ off his boot but this conjures an incorrect imagery. It suggests a brutish ‘hoofing’ of the ball. King is not a slugger. He is a skilled technician. There is an elegance in his practiced motion. It’s almost balletic. The ball proceeds upward through the air with minimal spin. This flatness of flight is by design. A ball in a tight corkscrew will cut through the air and result in diminished hang-time.
King has undeniable poise. He demonstrates exceptional leg strength. He exudes control. Watching him punt is to be witness to a master of his under-appreciated craft.
In February 2016 King signed a long-term contract extension in Oakland. The five-year deal was reported to be worth $16.5 million with a considerable portion of guaranteed money. The contract moved Marquette King from valued yet replaceable role player to a foundational part of their roster. To commit this sort of resource to a specialized position player is a bold move for a franchise that is in a planned growth period. In Derek Carr, the Raiders have identified their franchise quarterback and assembled a costly offensive line to protect him. The recent acquisition of local hero Marshawn Lynch has only served to further fire up the passionate Oakland fanbase. They have strategically amassed impressive talent on both sides of the ball and harbor realistic play-off aspirations. Tying up Marquette King to this deal underlines their belief in his ability and solidifies the punter position on their roster for years to come.
The Oakland Raiders would rather not have to use him at all.