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  • Contributors


    Cris Collinsworth

    Former Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals and Emmy-winning analyst from Sunday Night Football and Inside the NFL.
    Dave Lapham
    Has called game for the Bengals radio network for 25 years. Analyst for Big 12 games on Fox Sports Net. Played 10 years in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals.
    Turk Schonert
    NFL quarterback for 10 years with the Bengals and Falcons. Has served as quarterback coach for the Buccaneers, Bills, Panthers, Giants and Saints and Offensive Coordinator for the Bills.
    Phil McConkey
    Played 6 years in the NFL as a WR, punt returner and kick returner for the Giants, Packers, Cardinals and Chargers. Played college football at the Naval Academy and served in the U.S. Navy before joining the NFL. Best remembered for his oustanding game in Super Bowl XXI.
    Josina Anderson
    Josina "JoJo" Anderson is contributing reporter on Showtime's Inside the NFL and is a weekend co-anchor/reporter/producer for FOX 31 Sports in Denver, Colorado. Josina produces the nightly sportscasts and covers the Denver Broncos, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and the Colorado Rockies.
    Jerry Jones
    NFL Draft Expert, has published the acclaimed Drugstore List since 1978.
    Russell S Baxter
    Researcher, writer and editor covering the NFL for over 30 years.
    Andy Freeland
    Statistician and researcher for NBC's Sunday Night Football.
  • Punt Catching Tutorial

    The other day, Cris asked a question regarding the new kickoff return rule that segued into catching punts, a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I thought if there was one facet of the game that I could help shine light on, this is it.

    If you posed the question to NFL players about the single, most difficult thing to do on a football field, catching punts would be at the top of list. Most agree that quarterback is the most difficult position to play, but the one thing that strikes fear into the hearts of the toughest guys on the field, is standing under a punt. And it's a job usually handled by the smallest guy on the team.

    It's a play, if not executed correctly, can turn the momentum of the game and embarrass a poor soul. Throwing an interception or fumbling the ball are terrible mistakes, but muffing and turning over a punt is devastating. Think about it, the defensive coordinator just came up will a scheme or call to get his defense off the field. The players come off to the sideline, and before they even grab a drink, they have to turn around, put on their helmets, and go back on the field because the little sob returner screwed up.

    That's where the great fear lies. It's not getting pummeled, it's walking off the field after losing the ball, and passing your much larger teammates who just worked hard to get a stop. That is a terrifying thought. In addition, punt returners are usually one of the last guys on the roster, an interchangeable part of the team. You're not going to put one of your better players back there on a regular basis. So if you fail, even once, it could cost you your job.

    Letting down your teammates and the prospect of losing your job on a single play, is much more terrifying than getting hit hard by the coverage team, no matter how intimidating they are. And most of those guys are like ravenous dogs, foaming at the mouths, trying to take your head off.

    So you see the kind of motivation that helped me strive to have perfect technique at a position with so many variables.

    So, how do you avoid dropping a ball that's kicked so high, it comes down with ice on it? And don't forget the 11(yes, even some punters are badasses) maniacs streaking down on you.

    Let's start with Bill Parcells' golden rules for catching punts:

    "SPRINT TO THE BALL"

    "GET SET"

    "DON'T DRIFT"

    "CATCH IT"

    I can still hear him barking those words in my head, twenty years later.

    Before you can "SPRINT TO THE BALL", you have to be able to read the direction of the flight path of the ball. It may appear on TV that the ball travels in a straight line, but it never does. When the ball comes off the foot of the punter, it spins. To get the proper jump on the ball, you must quickly determine whether or not the nose of the ball is going to turn over. If it does, it will travel farther, and to your left. If not, it will drift to your right and not go as far(this is completely opposite with a left footed punter). The amount of spin on the ball will determine how fast the ball will move. So it's critical to get a jump on the ball, and get to where it's going before it does. You have to sprint, not jog.

    Now you have to factor in the wind before you "GET SET". Is it in your face? At your back? Or is it a cross wind? These are all factors you have to consider: when you wake up in the morning, when practicing in warmups, standing on the sideline on 3rd down, and just before the ball is kicked. Some stadiums have tricky winds, none more than Giants stadium. Sometimes the flags at the top of the stadium would be flying in one direction and the flags on top of the goalposts in the opposite direction. Down on the field it could be different from all the flags. I would take a torn up piece of paper, or grass, in my right hand, and toss it into the air before the snap to give me an accurate read of the wind conditions at that moment. You can't be too sure.

    If you've done all of the above correctly, you should be in proper position to make the catch. Here is where the "DON'T DRIFT' order comes into play. The ball should come down directly over your head. With your elbows to your chest, you want the ball to hit you between the numbers and trap it against your body with your forearms and hands. If you are not set and drifting, you will have to reach for the ball. Big mistake, that is when muffs occur and you look like an idiot.

    "CATCH IT" is the easiest part of the exercise. If you have read the flight of the ball correctly and got to the spot with good body position, you could almost close your eyes at the last second and still "CATCH IT".

    There were several drills I would do to improve my punt catching ability. In practice, I would turn my back to the ball and not turn until either Parcells , Bill Belichick, or Romeo Crennel(one or more of those guys was always out there) would tell yell "turn", well after the ball was kicked. This forced me to find the ball quicker and helped with reading it's direction.

    In order to make sure I didn't drift and was in perfect position to make the catch, I would let the ball hit me between the #'s with my hands behind my back. If that happened, you would not have to drift and reach for it.

    In order to improve concentration. I would "juggle" balls. I might have a ball in each hand, chase down a punt, toss the up the two balls, catch the punt, then each off the two others. In fact, at times I would have 5 balls on me and catch the sixth one.

    With those three defensive minded coaches I played for, ball possession was important, but so was field position.

    Too often you see balls hitting the ground and and giving up 10-15 yards. Letting a ball hit the ground in the eyes of those guys is a mortal sin. So you can see getting a jump on the ball and making catches, even if you don't gain a yard, gives you an advantage in field position. It's the great hidden stat that few talk about. But those coaches drilled it into me. That attention to detail is just one reason for their success.

    So I hope I crudely explained why my nerves were on edge before every game, every return. That nervous energy forced me to practice the technique I just described countless times, always striving for perfection, which never came.

    Comments 42 Comments
    1. nonamesleft's Avatar
      Good insightful article Phil.
    1. ScottDCP's Avatar
      And which punters apart from Dan Montgomery are badasses?
    1. buzmeg's Avatar
      Great writeup Phil. I have one question. How important was judging the strength of the kicker's leg in order to establish a starting position before your "sprint to the ball?"

      OK two questions. Your most embarrassing muff (if any)?
    1. GoBigOrGoHome's Avatar
      Wow.

      Great write-up, Phil.
    1. GoBigOrGoHome's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by ScottDCP View Post
      And which punters apart from Dan Montgomery are badasses?
      Did you mean Greg Montgomery? That guy was a legendary trouble-maker when he was at Michigan State.
    1. Andy Freeland's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by ScottDCP View Post
      And which punters apart from Dan Montgomery are badasses?
      Todd Sauerbrun is, just ask him. He's also the only punter I know of that got suspended for a banned substance.

      Great article Phil, should be required reading for high school punt returners.
    1. ScottDCP's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by GoBigOrGoHome View Post
      Wow.

      Great write-up, Phil.
      Yep, that one.
    1. ReaderM's Avatar
      Man, I just had the mental image of being in Giants stadium,wind at my back&crowd noise popping, a Bunch of 200+ Lb grown men running at me full blast and spinning ball just overhead about to fall into my hands.Great write up Phil on what it means to be a Punt Returner in the NFL
    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by buzmeg View Post
      Great writeup Phil. I have one question. How important was judging the strength of the kicker's leg in order to establish a starting position before your "sprint to the ball?"

      OK two questions. Your most embarrassing muff (if any)?
      We had a standard rule of standing 45 yards from the line of scrimmage. It would be adjusted by a yard or two depending on the wind and the punter.

      It's a bit like playing center field, it's easier to come up on a ball, than go back.
    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by ScottDCP View Post
      And which punters apart from Dan Montgomery are badasses?
      I remember the Eagles had a left footed punter who was a decathlete in college. He was big, fast, and tough.

      Most, however, don't fit into the badass category. Just a few.
    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by buzmeg View Post
      Great writeup Phil. I have one question. How important was judging the strength of the kicker's leg in order to establish a starting position before your "sprint to the ball?"

      OK two questions. Your most embarrassing muff (if any)?
      Forgot to answer the second part to your question. I two fumbles out of over 400 attempts(returns, fair catches, and non catches). One against the Jets was the most painful. It was a bitterly cold, typically windy day at Giants Stadium. I was in good position to make the catch, and did in fact catch it. But as I was trying to tuck it away, the cold made my jersey a bit slicker and the ball slid from grip, then bang, I was hit and lost the ball.
    1. msclemons's Avatar
      So, fear of letting teammates down, fear of losing job. Sounds like punt returning is sheer terror.

      Is that why you did that workout video with Simms? Were you terrorized?

      I knew it. Phil Simms is a terrorist.


      (seriously, awesome article Phil. Thank you)
    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by msclemons View Post
      So, fear of letting teammates down, fear of losing job. Sounds like punt returning is sheer terror.

      Is that why you did that workout video with Simms? Were you terrorized?

      I knew it. Phil Simms is a terrorist.


      (seriously, awesome article Phil. Thank you)
      You're quite welcome.

      Great explanation clem, I was forced against my will. Yeah, that's it. I was forced to wear a mullett, Tom Selleck mustache, and shorty shorts!
    1. mikesteelnation1's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Phil McConkey View Post
      You're quite welcome.

      Great explanation clem, I was forced against my will. Yeah, that's it. I was forced to wear a mullett, Tom Selleck mustache, and shorty shorts!
      Was it a true 4 finger tom selleck dirt squirrel, self aware of all its glory? Or more like a 2 finger hostetler stache, finding itself to be less than worthy of the selleck all pro stache on the mustache finger scale?
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Good stuff, thanks!
    1. GoBigOrGoHome's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by mikesteelnation1 View Post
      Was it a true 4 finger tom selleck dirt squirrel, self aware of all its glory? Or more like a 2 finger hostetler stache, finding itself to be less than worthy of the selleck all pro stache on the mustache finger scale?
      Well, it was no ToddZilla.

      Sorry, Phil (again )

      Man, the 1980s were great.

    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by mikesteelnation1 View Post
      Was it a true 4 finger tom selleck dirt squirrel, self aware of all its glory? Or more like a 2 finger hostetler stache, finding itself to be less than worthy of the selleck all pro stache on the mustache finger scale?
      Even though it was the style in the 80's, I had mine for a different reason. At the Naval Academy, facial hair was forbidden. The day of graduation, I grew my, "I am not a midshipman anymore" 'stache.
    1. AlabamaHotpocket's Avatar
      thats hot
    1. AlabamaHotpocket's Avatar
      yeah, i dont know if they keep "reliability" stats, but you were absolute "money" when handling punts. And, to top it off, always guaranted a hard 10 yards up the gut and a huge 30 yarder in the superbowl. Well done Sir!!
    1. Phil McConkey's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by AlabamaHotpocket View Post
      yeah, i dont know if they keep "reliability" stats, but you were absolute "money" when handling punts. And, to top it off, always guaranted a hard 10 yards up the gut and a huge 30 yarder in the superbowl. Well done Sir!!
      Great point on a 'reliability' stat for punt returners. There is so much more that goes into the quality of a guy than just average yards per return. That stat gives you no idea what a guy is worth as a returner.

      For example, your returner sprints up to catch a shanked punt. He catches it on the dead run 32 yards from the line of scrimmage and gains 2 yards before running out of bounds, or getting tackled. He gets credit for one return for a 2 yd ave. If you just saw that stat, you would think that was not a good return. However, he just saved your team 15 yards of field position because that's the average roll of a punt that hits the ground. Maybe we give that guy credit for 15 yards instead of 2?

      Conversely, the guy who let's the ball hit the ground in that situation should be penalized 15 yards.

      How do we account for turnovers? A guy could have a great average and is a threat to take it back every time, but he's just as likely to fumble it away.

      We have more brilliant football minds here at FP than anywhere else. Maybe we should put our heads together and come up with a formula to accurately assess the value of a punt returner. Anyone in?