BGA Weekly: Weather or Not

During the offseason, I’ll be looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. I will be tackling as many diverse topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

This week, I’m going to look at the punter situation for the Jets. How good was Steve Weatherford last year? How bad was he in the playoffs? Should they bring him back or not?

I’ll be trying to look beyond the traditional punter statistics to analyze his performance and compare it with recent Jets and some of the other punters around the league. More after the jump.

Once again, this article has used data exclusively provided to us from the guys at PFF. Our thanks, as ever, go out to them.

Introduction

By sheer coincidence, PFF also published what is apparently their first ever article exclusively about punters this week. Fortunately for me, it contains the following nugget, which serves as a useful starting point:

One example of [someone whose performance exceeded their traditional stats] is Steve Weatherford of the New York Jets. He was 23rd in the league with 42.4 yards per punt in 2010 but he was PFF’s No. 5 rated punter with a +13.4 overall grade. He led the league by pinning the opponent within the 20 yard line 42 times. That was half of his 84 punts, a percentage that also led the league.

What PFF is saying is that basically Weatherford scores well because of his directional punting. There’s no sense in booming a 50 yard punt through the endzone because the resulting touchback will result in a 30 yard net. You’d actually be better off with a 31 yard punt, as long as there was no return.

I’ve actually been considering ways to statistically represent punting performance, taking into account whether the punter put the ball through the end zone or outkicked his coverage. Obviously net average achieves this to an extent, but a punter who kicks from inside the opposition’s half is likely to find his net average limited. Therefore, I’ve been looking at ways to express punt efficiency as a percentage.

A New Stat: ANPP

Adjusted Net Punt Percentage (ANPP) is the statistic I’ve invented to evaluate punters statistically. Each net punt can expressed as a percentage of the amount of yards to the opposition endzone. Therefore, if you are at the 50 yard line and the punt is downed at the five, that’s 90%. If the punt went for a touchback, that would only be 60%. If the punt was returned to the 40, then that would only be 20%. You could have a negative percentage for an individual punt, but the overall numbers for a season will give a good indication of the punter’s performance.

The reason why it’s Adjusted Net Punt Percentage rather than just Net Punt Percentage is that I’ve limited the maximum expected yards to 65 yards. If I didn’t do that, then a 45 yard net punt from the ten yard line (not bad) would only score the same as a 25 yard punt from the 50 yard line (awful). Now it will score the same as a 35 yard punt from the 50 (70%). This ensures the result is a percentage of a reasonable maximum. Of course, this could lead to a single punt percentage of over 100% but all that means is that the expected maximum has been exceeded.

Naturally, all fake punts and blocked punts have been excluded from the data.

The ANPP stat seems to work as follows:

- Less than 60% is poor. Examples of a 60% punt would be a 30 yard net punt from the 50 or a 39 yard net punt from inside your own 35. Anyone who is averaging less than 60% is not even managing to do this every time and should see their job in jeopardy.
– More than 70% is elite. Examples of a 70% punt would be a 35 yard net punt from the 50 or a 46 yard net punt from inside your own 35. If you are exceeeding 70% that means you are doing better than this on average and will have one of the highest ratings in the league.
– Everything in between gives us a scale on which we can judge punters around the league. Someone at 61% will be one of the weakest punters in the league, whereas someone at 69% would be one of the best in the NFL and someone at 65% will be in the middle of the pack. That’s how narrow the gap is between elite and not good enough.

Road Testing the New Stat

Let’s look at two guys from either end of the scale to check that this statistic works before we analyze Weatherford and other recent Jet punters.

Shane Lecher is widely regarded as the NFL’s best punter. He had a comfortable lead atop PFF’s rankings and I can personally vouch for him, having seen every Raiders game for the last few years. In 2010, Lechler’s ANPP was 68%, right at the top end of the elite scale. He was actually at a phenomenal 76% after six games, but he was hurt by some long returns in the middle part of the season, due to his propensity to outkick his coverage. Otherwise, he was consistently clocking in the high sixties and above.

At the other end of the scale, we have Matt Dodge. The Giants rookie suffered significant growing pains during the year, including several costly errors, one of which saw DeSean Jackson score the winning touchdown in a crucial matchup in December. Dodge wasn’t actually PFF’s worst rated punter – it was Chicago’s Brad Maynard, by a mile – but since his struggles were more high profile, we’ll consider Dodge.

For 2010, Dodge posted an ANPP of 58%. He was actually at 61% with five games to go, but had an ANPP of less than 60% in four of his last five games to drop below the Mendoza line. Maybe Dodge gets a pass because he is young, but he will definitely need to show some improvement in camp otherwise the Giants will replace him with someone more experienced. Dodge did have an ANPP of over 65% in six of 16 games, so he isn’t a total lost cause.

The scale does seem to work, anyway. So, remember, low sixties = bad, high sixties = good. Now armed with that, let’s look back at the Jets over the last three years, starting with 2008.

Jets Analysis – 2008 to 2010

The incumbent starter entering the 2008 season was Australian Ben Graham. Graham had been “discovered” by Eric Mangini, but actually made his Jets debut in 2005 while Mangini was the defensive coordinator for the Patriots. Graham was entering his fourth season with the Jets, a refreshing change for a team that had used six different punters between 2001 and 2004, but despite showing plenty of promise, he was also prone to bouts of inconsistency. They had given him a Matt Dodge-style pass due to his inexperience, but he was on pretty thin ice after failing to replicate his preseason prowess in any of his first three seasons in the NFL.

Graham’s season got off to a rocky start, as he shanked a couple of punts in the home opener against the Patriots. These errors were particularly costly as Matt Cassel was able to lead New England to a 19-10 win. At the bye week (week five), Graham had an ANPP of just 58%. Consulting the chart, this suggests his job was in jeopardy and, sure enough, he was replaced with Reggie Hodges. Hodges was slightly more reliable than Graham, but still only managed an ANPP of 61% over the remainder of the season. Hodges only surpassed 70% in two of his 12 games, and they were both games in which he only punted once. It was obvious that the Jets needed to upgrade.

2009’s preseason saw the Jets trying out Hodges, rookie TJ Conley, AJ Trapasso, Glenn Pakulak and Ken Parrish before they finally settled on Weatherford following his release from Jacksonville. Weatherford did prove to be an upgrade at punter, posting an ANPP of 66% over the first ten games. However, he didn’t have as strong of a finish to the season and saw his ANPP for the year drop to 64%. This still represents an upgrade from poor in 2008 to slightly below average in 2009.

Weatherford also brought a knack for running fake punts to the table, as the Jets went four-for-four, although only two of them saw Weatherford involved in the play as a runner.

In 2010, Weatherford brought ShakeWeights to camp for everybody and maybe that contributed to him winning the job again over Conley. Weatherford got off to a tremendous start by landing four of his six punts inside the 20 in the home opener for an outstanding ANPP of 80%, the highest by any Jet over the three year period analyzed. By comparison, Brandon Fields’ incredible performance against the Jets in Week 14 last year, where he boomed punt after punt from deep in Miami territory only netted him an ANPP of 77%.

From there, Weatherford continued to have a solid season, only posting an ANPP of less than 60% twice, although one was in a horrible performance in New England, which helped dig the hole from which the Jets ultimately lost by 42. His ANPP for the regular season was 68% – the same as for Lechler. Quite simply, Weatherford had an excellent regular season, (ill-fated fake punt against Green Bay aside).

Interestingly, Hodges and Graham are still in the league and were 14th and 12th respectively in terms of gross average. Despite only being 23rd in that category, Weatherford had a better net average than both as they were both ranked outside the top ten by PFF. This suggests that those teams had inferior offenses to the Jets and had to kick from their own end of the field more often.

Postseason Analysis

Unfortunately, Weatherford’s excellent regular season did not translate to the postseason. Having only put the ball in the endzone four times in 84 regular season punts, his directional punting skills deserted him and five of his 15 postseason punts rolled into the endzone. This left him with a horrible ANPP of 55%.

You may be wondering if ANPP numbers drop in the postseason, either due to the added pressure or perhaps because of the cold. While the cold may have affected Weatherford – his best game was indoors against the Colts – the postseason rankings would tend to suggest that even if there is a slight drop, it wouldn’t be close to significant enough to excuse Weatherford’s struggles:

ANPP Rankings – 2010 Postseason
– Morstead 81%
– Koch 73%
– Colquitt 69%
– Mesko 66%
– Masthay 65%
– Koenen 64%
– Kapinos, Rocca, Maynard 63%
– McAfee 59%
– Weatherford 55%
– Ryan 53%

Obviously these comprise some small sample sizes, including Morstead, who only punted four times, but the combined result of all postseason punting was an ANPP of 62% and nine of the 12 punters actually exceeded that number.

So, the question becomes whether Weatherford is unable to cope well enough with pressure situations. A look back to the 2009 playoff would suggest that this might not be an issue, because he posted an ANPP of 67%. However, the perception can’t have been helped by the fact he had to miss a game with an irregular heartbeat. Although Jay Feely’s stand-in performance was hailed as heroic, his ANPP was only 50% which underlines how much not having their regular punter available hurt them.

Will He Be Back?

In a chat on ESPNNY earlier this month, Rich Cimini stated the following in response to a question about Weatherford:

I’d say the chances of him returning are remote. I mean, they decided in early March not to give him an RFA tender; that was a pretty telling indication right there.

However, Weatherford was only paid $630,000 in 2010 and the minimum RFA tender in 2011 should be approximately $1.3m. While he improved in 2010, it’s difficult to say that he did enough to earn a 100% pay rise, especially when he’s not the kind of player to command much outside interest. The Jets, for whom money figures to be tight this year, probably expect to be able to bring him back for much less than that. According to Sports Illustrated, the average punter salary is approximately $850,000 and while Shane Lechler signed a $4m a year contract, this is far from the norm.

Other Options

Other than perhaps making a trade or a waiver wire pickup, the Jets have one other option on their current roster and it’s a guy who has already had two shots at making the Jets roster. For TJ Conley, perhaps the third time’s a charm. Conley averaged 47.4 yards per punt in his senior year at Idaho, but has been released after the Jets’ first preseason game in each of the last two seasons.

In those two preseason games, Conley actually posted an ANPP of 67% which doesn’t seem too bad, but if memory serves, I believe he shanked a punt which took a lucky roll and ended up being a 50-yarder. With such a small sample size, events like that are the one limitation of the ANPP statistic. Had it been a 30-yard net, his ANPP drops to 59%, so it’s perhaps little wonder that he was cut.

Conclusions

While I will never be a believer in using stats alone to inform football decisions or opinions, the ANPP statistic I devised does seem to be a useful way of combining the most important numbers for a punter. On the basis of his ANPP numbers for 2010, Steve Weatherford had a great year, but his postseason performance obviously left a lot to be desired.

Despite his postseason struggles, Weatherford’s performance last year was good enough that they should definitely try and bring him back, assuming the price is right. Fans of this team should know all too well how difficult it is to find a decent punter.

TJ Conley will get another chance and his upside is perhaps greater than Weatherford’s. However, he will need to perform with more consistency than he has in the last two camps, otherwise he will find himself beaten out by the more experienced Weatherford once again.

As ever, I am looking for ideas to cover in a future BGA, so please let me have your suggestions in the comments.