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"
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.