In each of the past three offseasons, I've dedicated a post to the punters. It started as an attempt to figure out if there was any reason to believe Rocca could beat out Dirk Johnson for the starting job, and then evolved into a "Sav vs. Dirk" comparison to see if the change had made any difference.
Going into this year's study, I had little reason to believe we'd find many positive things to say about Sav. Anecdotal recollections are death to good analyses, but frankly, my recollection was that he kind of stunk up the joint.
So I was a little surprised when I ran the usual numbers and found that, overall, Sav really wasn't that bad. He was no worse than average across the board, and far better than average in some specific areas.
Here's the chart:
As usual, Sav's gross average is pretty bad. For someone who came in with the reputation of having an enormous leg, he's really never shown that.
On the other hand, net average is really what matters here. On that scale he's tied for 14th in the league. Positively McNabbian, you might say.
He -- and the punt coverage teams -- also did a much better job this year cutting down on returns. That 5.9 yard per return figure was fifth-best in the league, and goes a long way towards explaining why Sav's net is so much better than his gross.
Finally, where Sav really shines is on touch punts. He keeps his touchback percentage down and his inside the twenty percentage up. Those are good things.
And none of this makes much sense.
My immediate thought was that maybe the mistake I was making was putting his stats up next to Dirk's. After all, it's not like Johnson was that great a punter. What if we instead line Sav up with the two guys who made the Pro Bowl this year:
Ok, we're starting to get some context on some of these numbers. Sure, Sav's good at cutting down on returns, but that couple yards of return damage (return yards divided by all punts) is getting swallowed up by the huge difference in how far these guys kick the ball.
And check out how bizarre Lechler's stats are. Playing on a terrible team with a field goal kicker who has perhaps the strongest leg in the game means he almost never gets a chance to punt on the opponent's side of the field. He had only five "short punts" all year, in comparison to 16 for Sav and 18 for Lee.
Which got me thinking ... how much are Sav's numbers really just a product of field position? If you look at FO's special teams stats, the teams with good punters mostly seem to be those that aren't all that good. Is the difference here really just that Sav spends most of his time kicking around midfield -- where you have to have some touch -- where guys like Lechler are just booming balls from their own 20 all day?
This was a good time to take a break, grab a beer, and try to figure out if there was any way I could resolve that question without going into all the game-by-game play-by-play data and pulling out every single punt those guys had this year.
The beer was tasty, but the answer seemed to be no. So that's why it's 1 a.m. and I'm still only two-thirds of the way through writing this up.
Anyway, once I got all the data entered, I then had to figure out how exactly I was going to measure this stuff. I settled on the following:
Yline = Line of scrimmage for the punting team. Number 1-99 (theoretically) from the own goal line.
Punt = Punt distance
Return = Return distance
Result = Yline + Punt - Return
Optimal Result = "IF ( Yline < 40 , Yline + 50 , 90)." In English, if the line of scrimmage was between the 1 and 39 yard lines, I made the optimal result a 50-yard net punt. If it was on the 40-yard line or beyond, I called the optimal result a change of possesion on the 10-yard line. There are opportunities for further refinement here, but as you'll see in a minute, it won't matter that much once we start comparing apples to apples.
Difference = Actual result - Optimal result. (Yes, "optimal" is sort of a misnomer here, isn't it? That's going to drive Prof. Franko nuts. We'll come up with something better at some point.)
Results for the two-man comparison:*
Lechler (and the Raiders' coverage team) is three yards better than Sav (and the Eagles coverage team) from the end zone to the 40. From the 40 to midfield, he's four yards better. Across midfield, he's four yards worse, but remember the small sample size. Lechler put two in the end zone in those five tries, so that killed him on that number.
Because Sav kicked so many balls on the opponents' half of the field, the overall difference between the two guys is only about one and a half yards per punt. That's what we call taking advantage of opportunity.
So now, here's where it gets interesting. If you assume, just for quick and dirty purposes, that each additional yard of field position is worth about 0.06 points, and given how good Sav is on touch punts and how often the Eagles' offense crosses midfield, I think you can make a case that Lechler is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of nine to 12 points over Rocca each season.
That sounds like a pretty sizable difference, but keep in mind two things: 1) Lechler is the best punter in the league and 2) Rocca's the only person we know of who can make David Akers forget about Koy Detmer.
Akers converted 11 of 13 field goals from 40-49 yards this year. Back when he was wandering the desert, David was really just a coin flip from that range. Knock 11 made down to seven made, and suddenly you've just erased any gains you get from picking up a better punter.
* Numbers may not match table above because I entered all punts into the database, even those eventually called back by penalty.