There are many confounding details about this NFL season, ones that make you wonder why anyone would be willing to put money on an outcome. The team that looked like the best in the league Sunday — the New York Giants — is 0-2 in its division. The entire AFC East is the very definition of mediocrity: 3-3, although on the bright side, it’s the first time since the divisions were realigned in 2002 that all teams in a division are tied for first place this late in the season. The NFC West, which just two years ago sported a sub-.500 division champion, is filled with teams at or above .500, even though only one of them won on Sunday.
Nothing, though, is as head-scratching as one of the quietest trends of the season, which might be best summed up this way: What in the name of Ray Guy is going on here?
There have been 10 blocked punts through six weeks, one more than was blocked in all of last season. There were three this week before the Monday night game: garden variety blocks by Tennessee against Pittsburgh on Thursday night and Houston against Green Bay on Sunday night and the more exotic adventure of Tampa Bay’s Michael Koenen.
Koenen is a pretty good punter, although he has had his own issues with blocks. Of his 27 punts this season, 12 have been downed inside the 20-yard line. But Koenen has had seven punts blocked in his eight-year career. On Sunday, Koenen went one step worse after a punt was blocked by the Kansas City Chiefs. He channeled his inner Garo Yepremian and picked up the ball from the end zone and attempted a pass. It landed in the hands of Chiefs linebacker Edgar Jones, who returned it 11 yards for a touchdown.
It was ruled a fumble recovery because the NFL rule book states that you cannot throw a pass after a blocked punt. Whatever. The chaos that ensued after Kansas City’s block was just a microcosm of unpredictable punting this season. Not every team can employ Tim Tebow, the world’s most famous personal punt protector, but even the New York Jets have had a punt blocked this season (by San Francisco). The Jets also have a special teams coach, Mike Westhoff, who has been around for so long that he says he knows why punt teams are struggling to take flight.
“They have limited experience because of so many rookies making the team," Westhoff said of the punt teams. “It’s difficult to keep veteran backups. You can keep one; you used to keep five or six. When I started, I might make one or two adjustments on my punt team. Now I make five year to year."
Because of salary cap restrictions and the rising minimum salaries of veteran players (this year’s veteran minimum for a player with four to six accrued seasons is $700,000), teams cannot afford to keep many high-priced, experienced veterans who are not starters. And high-priced, experienced veterans do not usually play on special teams. That leaves special teams coaches with a stew of relatively inexperienced (read: cheaper) players. The skill level is presumably reduced, and the turnover is greater. A special teams coach might see one good veteran special teams player, but a general manager might see money that could be spent on filling two roster spots.
Add to that a few other factors. New limits on offseason practice time mean special teams coaches like Westhoff no longer can use those quiet weeks to develop inexperienced players. Because few starters play much in preseason games, the backups are pressed into full-time duty, meaning fewer practice and game repetitions on special teams. Even more experienced players, like those on Pittsburgh’s punting team, seem to struggle.
Tennessee linebacker Tim Shaw, who blocked the Steelers’ punt, said the Titans had detected a weakness in the protection on tape. It is difficult to tell what happened on the block, but Steelers long snapper Greg Warren and upback Ryan Mundy blocked the same man, allowing Shaw to run free. Mundy has been with the Steelers’ organization since 2008. Warren has been there since 2005. But Pittsburgh changed special teams coaches two games into the preseason this year.
Westhoff said he believed the instability on special teams would make blocked punts a trend, but recent history indicates it is hard to predict. In 2010 there were 12 blocks, but the San Diego Chargers allowed four of them. In 2009 there were only six blocks. In 2008, when there were 13 blocks, the Carolina Panthers allowed three of them. So far this season, just one team, the Washington Redskins, has allowed more than one blocked punt, but they came in the first two games of the regular season and there have been none since.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the most blocked punts came in 1977, when there were 31. Punt protection has clearly improved since then.
Still, the current rate of blocked punts (0.11 per game) is more than double the rate of blocks in the most recent productive season, 2008 (0.05 per game). The NFL is on a pace for a walloping 28 blocked punts — a figure that would surely get plenty of special teams coaches fired. Westhoff will not have to worry about how to fix it, though. He is retiring after this season.