The best thing about the Los Angeles Rams isn’t Aaron Donald and the defensive line, or laughing at Jeff Fisher and his endless quest to perfect mediocrity. Nope. The best thing about the Rams is their punter.
The Rams are 4-8 and losers of seven of eight. They have the NFL’s lowest-ranked offensive DVOA. They somehow lost to the 49ers by four touchdowns, which ought not to be possible. But they have Johnny Hekker, and Johnny Hekker is having maybe the best season of any punter, ever. It was easy to chortle when Fisher declared the other day that the Rams are “on a record-setting pace with our punt team.” But he wasn’t wrong. Hekker, an undrafted free agent in 2012 and two-time All-Pro, really is that good.
Hekker’s average of 47.5 yards per punt ranks seventh in the league, but that’s a meaningless stat: Punters are often charged with landing punts inside the 20 (touchbacks are bad for punters), kicking high enough to help their coverage, and angling the ball directionally, sometimes to keep it away from returners. The goal is to maximize field position; it isn’t always just to blast the ball out of the stadium. Though Hekker can damn well do that, too.
Any way you look at, Hekker has been sensational this year. His net average, which takes returns and touchbacks into consideration, is 45.8 yards. How good is that? As Pro Football Talk noted the other day, the league record—set by Hekker in 2013—is a mere 44.2 yards. And that total is still the only time a punter has finished a season with a net average greater than 44 yards.
Hekker also has 40 punts inside the 20-yard line, nine more than any other punter this season, and just six shy of the NFL record. Football Outsiders provided even more context by noting that Hekker has landed 56 percent of his punts inside the 20, and that Andy Lee of the Panthers is the only other punter above 50 percent. Not only that, but Hekker has just one touchback, and his touchback rate is a minuscule 1.4 percent. By way of comparison, the Colts’ Pat McAfee, the league leader in yards per punt at 50.0, has a touchback rate of 18.2 percent.
Hekker can seemingly put the ball wherever he wants.
“To have both distance punting and directional punting—some guys have one or the other, but it’s somewhat rare to see both on a very high level,” former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe told me. “He has the ability to hit that 50-, 55-yarder with 5.0 (second) hang time, which is key; that’s obviously a very handy skill to have. He’s also one of those guys in that he can directional punt while he’s doing it. In terms of being able to just put it over by the numbers, with hang time, that makes it easier for his coverage guys to get down there and get the ball.”
This, too, can be quantified: The Rams have given up an average of just 3.7 yards per punt return this season, the best total in the league. Only the Patriots (96) have given up fewer total punt return yards than the Rams (101)—and the Pats have punted 20 fewer times than the Rams.* The Rams’ opponents’ start their drives with an average line of scrimmage of the 25.49; only the Colts’ (25.46) and Patriots’ opponents (24.33) start with worse field position. And wouldn’t you know it: Bill Belichick is a huge Hekker fan. In the run-up to last week’s Rams-Pats game, Belichick wouldn’t stop gushing about Hekker:
“Hekker is a tremendous weapon,” Belichick said, unprovoked. “I mean, this guy is as good a player as I’ve ever seen at that position. He’s a tremendous weapon in his ability to punt the ball, punt it inside the 20, directional kick it, involved in fakes, can throw, can run, very athletic … He’s dangerous. Absolutely. He’s like a quarterback. He can throw. He can run. You gotta defend him like you defend one of those guys.”
That athleticism Belichick was referring to? Hekker is a former high school quarterback who two years ago was involved in one of the ballsier fake punts in recent memory. Interestingly, Hekker also won the job at Oregon State after walking on, beating out a punter who later transferred to Louisiana Tech. That punter was Ryan Allen, an eventual two-time Ray Guy Award winner who’s been with the Patriots since 2013.
Hekker ranks third in the league with 27 fair catches on his punts. He’s tied for fifth with eight punts out of bounds, and tied for seventh with nine punts downed. That means 61.1 percent of his punts have not been returned. But even when they have been returned, Hekker hasn’t made it easy. Here’s more Belichick on Hekker, via CSN New England:
“Another part of the problem is just catching the ball. He kicks it so far and makes the returner move for it. They run over there, they mishandle it, or it hits the ground and rolls for another 20 yards. It’s a tough ball to catch because you’re not just shagging flies out there. He’s making you run, and he’s kicking it over your head.”
“It changes field position [in] one play. You think you’re going to get the ball with good field position and you’re at the 15-yard line.”
Punting often seems like a routine play, so it’s remarkable to see what this looks like when a master does it. Belichick got a first-hand glimpse on Sunday, long after the outcome was no longer in doubt, when Hekker belted a 76-yard punt in the fourth quarter that sent return man Cyrus Jones scurrying some 25 yards backward to get it. It was Hekker’s third punt of 70 or more yards this season:
In Week 10, the Rams and Jets spent three hours farting into their hands until Hekker, with the line of scrimmage at his own 17, did this. That’s a 78-yard punt, entirely through the air, in case you were wondering:
Instead of decent field position, the Jets took over at their own 15. They promptly went three-and-out, and instead it was the Rams who got the ball at midfield. Within minutes, L.A. kicked a field goal that proved to be the final margin in a 9-6 win.
Hekker directly affected a win in Week 2, when the Rams upset the Seahawks, 9-3. He averaged just 39.5 yards per punt that day, but all six of his kicks landed inside the 20. And during the the third quarter of a tie game in Week 7, when Fisher had the Rams punt from the Giants’ 41—that weird no man’s land where teams will often go for it because punts from there usually only net a couple dozen yards—Hekker dropped the ball at the 3, and got it to bounce straight up:
I asked Chris Kluwe how hard that was. Kluwe, who spent eight seasons in the league, was a traditional-style punter because that’s how he learned. But Aussie-style punters like Hekker have become increasingly common in recent years, at every level. With the Aussie style, punters drop the ball vertically when making the kick, with the nose facing the ground. According to Kluwe, Aussie-style punters “definitely have an advantage” with situational punts because of the way those kicks tend to get the ball to bounce backward upon landing.
Also: “Even if you hit it as hard as you can, the ball is never going to go more than, like, 44 yards or so,” Kluwe said.
And this can be more effective than trying to angle a punt toward the sideline, which requires less leg power; Kluwe estimated that the so-called “coffin corner” approach uses just 60-to-70 percent leg power, but that by not swinging through the ball, it increases a punter’s chances of making a mistake.
With the Aussie approach, Kluwe said, punters connect with the ball at “not quite full speed, but close enough,” and that they can “swing through, just like a normal punt.” Hekker, Kluwe added, has “obviously mastered that very well, to where he’s calibrated it in to drop it right around the 9-, 8-yard line. That either forces a fair catch, or if he’s hitting it toward the sidelines, he can just hit it, and trust that the ball with either bounce backwards, or it’ll hit and go out of bounds if he’s hitting it in the right direction.”
The Rams’ offensive ineptitude has also helped Hekker. In addition to being dead last in offensive DVOA, they average just 24.51 yards per drive, which ranks dead last and is well short of the league average of 32.04. They’re also dead last in third-down efficiency (32.5 percent). As a result, Hekker has attempted 72 punts—tied for most in the league with the Niners’ Bradley Pinion—and he’s getting a lot of long-field opportunities.
“That’s definitely helping his numbers this year,” Kluwe said, “to know that they’re going three-and-out on their own 30 or their own 20, so he can just crush it.”