What Happens On A Directional Punt, And Why Coughlin Shouldn't Have Lost His Shit

Go ahead, blame the kicker. Chase him down while the play is still live and let everyone at home know whose fault this loss is. It's yours, Matt Dodge! It's all your fault!

Never mind the 28 fourth-quarter points the Eagles scored, or the onside kick that was easily recovered earlier in the quarter, or the fact that 10 men not named Matt Dodge couldn't touch, let alone tackle, DeSean Jackson. Never mind all that. Just run directly at the punter and scold him so everyone knows whose fault this really is. And if the rumors are true, tell him he's a piece of shit when you get into the locker room, then tell him to leave.

It is a time-honored tradition in football to blame the kicker for a loss. It's easy, after all. Damn kicker blew the game. But that's not how it works. Football is complex. Every player on every single play affects the outcome, but no one wants to hear this. They want someone to burn in effigy, and who better than the weenie who wears a weird number and a weird facemask and hangs out by himself on the sideline kicking special footballs into a net over and over while real men do men's work out on the field.

Just kick the ball out of bounds! If only it were that simple. Of all the special teams, punt team gets the most work during the week, because its execution is so crucial. A punt is a two-part play. First, the punt team must protect the punter and make sure he's not rushed at all. There is a numbering system that determines who blocks whom. Defensive players are counted outside in, not including the one or two hold-up men that are responsible for locking down the gunner, the guy who's job is to get downfield to the return receiver as quickly as possible.

If a defensive team is trying hard to block the punt, they'll use only one hold-up man, but typically, as was the case in the final play of Sunday's Giants-Eagles game, the defensive team is not trying to block the kick. They're trying to set up a return. The gunners are the fastest dudes on the punt team, and they have no blocking responsibilities, so they can go at the snap of the ball. If they're not dealt with effectively, they'll produce a fair catch. In this case, the Eagles were setting up a right-side return, so they had the Giants' gunners locked down. The gunners were a non-factor on the play, even with Jackson wasting valuable time fumbling the ball.

The second part of the punt team's execution, after protection, is to cover the kick. Every player on the punt team, based on his position on the play, has a specific lane he must stay in when pursuing the returner. Special teams coaches will not tolerate any deviation from these lanes. These plays are practiced ad infinitum in training camp.

Coaches also stress the importance of being aware of what the other team is trying to accomplish. The Eagles had set up a right return, meaning that each Eagle was trying to block his assigned man toward their bench, or the left, and clear a lane up the right sideline for Jackson. Giants players had no way of knowing that Jackson would instead fly straight up the middle, and even then, their punt team was in excellent position to make the tackle. But a dynamic player like Jackson can make great athletes look stupid with a slight wiggle, lean, or shift. That's exactly what he did, sending his pursuers off their line and creating a lane he could skate through, dagger in hand.

Which brings us back to the punter. All this stuff happened because Dodge was unable to kick the ball out of bounds, as he was apparently directed to do. It's obvious he tried to kick it out of bounds. The snap was a bit high, nothing drastic, but high nonetheless, which usually throws the kicker off his trusted rhythm. Dodge turned his body toward the Eagles bench, aiming at the sideline, but he also wanted to get some distance on it, and it looks as if he felt some pressure from the side he was turning to, which made him alter his mechanics ever so slightly and drop the ball maybe a centimeter off, to the inside of his foot. The result, as everyone saw, was Armageddon.

Watch the members of the punt team closely. They certainly weren't behaving as if they believed the punt was headed out of bounds. They were trying to run down and make a tackle. Even if they'd heard the instructions to kick it out of bounds, they surely knew from endless hours of practice that directional punting is not as easy as it sounds. Punters are constantly scolded at practice for not placing their kicks accurately. In the huddle, a direction is given for the kick, which will tell everyone, especially the gunners, how to release in order to get there the fastest. But special teams players will know from making mistakes in the past that if they rely exclusively on this information and fail to track the actual flight of the ball, they'll wind up out of position. Punts have a tendency to go everywhere, particularly directional punts. There are so many factors involved: the rush, the wind, the punter's desire to kick the shit out of the ball at the expense of his control. Ideally, the ball would fall somewhere outside the numbers, but I'd guess that somewhere between half and two-thirds of directional punts are properly placed. That's why it's more of a suggestion than a guarantee.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin obviously knows all of this. That's why Matt Dodge still has a job. But it doesn't help the public perception when he races out onto the field to emasculate the guy for all the world to see. He should know better. But football is an intensely emotional game for everyone involved, especially the head coach, who has more invested than anyone else. Coughlin's response was to sit in a dark room for hours after the loss, presumably to avoid catching his reflection in the mirror, which, if he has any conscience, would've made him retch in disgust.

What Happens On A Directional Punt, And Why Coughlin Shouldn't Have Lost His Shit

Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times.


Top photo via the New York Daily News.