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The Science of Punting

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Thomas Morstead kicks the Saints to victory

Photo: Derick E. Hingle

Thomas Morstead is the Saints’ secret weapon. In the Saints’ classic 26-23 victory over the incessantly bothersome Atlanta Falcons in week 10 of the NFL season, much was written and spoken in various quarters of the panicked Mike Smith, the Falcons’ head coach, trying to convert on fourth down; of the defensive line’s brilliant head-banging stop of the human bowling ball Michael Turner on that same try; of the Saints’ inability to stop Falcon wide receiver Harry Douglas as he repeatedly split the secondary for game-breaking plays. A myriad of other seemingly key factors in the game were similarly raised around town as the game was analyzed and dissected, but one element was yet again typically missing as it has so often been since 2009: that the punter, Thomas Morstead, had delivered killing, maybe deciding, blows ultimately sealing the opponent’s fate.

On a day when he would nail three punts inside the Falcons’ twenty-yard line, the most important one came just about at the game’s final two minute mark after the Saints’ Jimmy Graham had been called for an extremely questionable holding penalty negating a lead-stretching field goal by John Kasay. Morstead lifted a perfect floater that the Falcons’ dangerous return man, pro bowler Eric Weems, had almost no hope of returning.  And indeed he did not as he was forced to call for a fair catch at the six-yard line, rather than risk further incursion into his team’s side of the field. With just a shade under two minutes left, it was then that Matt Ryan (still capable, but nonetheless second fiddle in any matchup with Drew Brees) began his march down the field with crossing strikes to speedy, but usually underutilized, Harry Douglas, consisting of three passes in quick succession for an amazing sixty-six yards in just sixty-seven seconds. A surely somewhat winded Falcons offense, facing an increasingly steelier defense, took another seven plays and thirty-four seconds to reach the Saints’ nine-yard line. There, after another two plays and another nine seconds that seemed to last an eternity, the Falcons finally wilted under Gregg Williams’ constantly bold aggressiveness and were forced into a game tying field goal.

The important thing there was not solely Roman Harper’s’ near-goal-line interception or the amazing emergence of Jo-Lonn Dunbar as an on-field captain in clutch-time, but that the fourteen yards of field position created by Morstead – the difference between a touchback presenting the Falcons with beginning at their twenty as opposed to their own six yard line – had proved crucial in preventing a touchdown considering that Ryan had managed to drive all the way to the Saints’ nine-yard line.

Earlier in the game, but again, right at the end of the half with close to just a minute left with the Saints leading, Morstead had done nearly the exact same thing, turning over a beautiful kick that left Courtney Roby controlling the ball at the Falcons’ one-yard line. The Falcons found themselves trailing by just four in a game that pretty much would determine many of their season’s goals. They also had stopped the Saints and certainly had high hopes for a large momentum switch right before the half but then they found themselves pinned as closely to their own goal and as far away from the Saints’ as was mathematically possible. As would happen, at the end of the second half, the Falcons drove down the field efficiently enough, but stalled and had to settle for a field goal attempt that their kicker Matt Bryant would miss. Again, a touchback by Morstead would have resulted in almost an extra twenty yards of field position for the Falcons and possibly another three points or another seven if the Falcons had been fortunate in a few respects. Ultimately in the final three minutes of two halves, Morstead may have given the defense another thirty-five yards of field position while taking crucial seconds off the clock and as many as seven points off the board. However, Morstead was not done. As the intense game progressed into the overtime period, the importance of field position became extreme.  Ultimately, after an exchange of possessions, Morstead would send the ball booming sixty-four yards with authority, giving the Falcons a touchback at their twenty.  Frustrated yet again, the Falcons found themselves exactly back where they had started. Four plays later, perhaps sensing the inevitable (either Brees would score or Morstead would knock them back again) Smith would fold.

The kick is the play that literally defines the sport of football; it is the tie that binds all games called “football” across the world, from soccer to Australian-rules football to rugby. And while it is true that Drew Brees is the lynchpin in any Saints victories in the future, there remains a ghost in the machine that is the sport of modern NFL football affecting all teams, one in which a talented punter can change the course of the game by altering the field position beyond the control of even the game’s biggest stars and coaches. While there have been very few special punters of such ability in modern times, it is growing ever more apparent that the Saints may just have one in Thomas Morstead.

-PAUL WEGMANN