Some stats lie. Seattle punter Jon Ryan is having an historic season. Image from USA Today.
It's Pro Bowl voting time! And while some mediocre players on popular teams will inevitably Cartwright their way into big vote numbers, the overwhelming sentiment I hear from NFL fans is, "Jason, I want to be an informed voter. So what can you tell me?"
I can tell you a few things about punters.
Seattle's Jon Ryan currently ranks a lowly 29th in basic yards/punt, with an average of 43.4. But that's a misleading load of hooey. The leader in that stat, Miami's Brandon Fields, has punted just 10 times out of 52 (19%) from the Miami 40-yard-line or closer. Ryan has made 21/44 punts (48%) from a distance of 60 yards or less to the end zone.
What's more, Fields has given up about 300 yards on punt returns (between 290 and 345, depending on how you count penalties), making his average net closer to 42.7 yards per attempt.
But when you factor in the return yards allowed by Jon Ryan's punts, his average goes from 43.4 gross to 43.1 net.
Yeah, you read that right. As I first read on Bleacher Report, Ryan and the Seahawks have allowed just 15 punt return yards total all season long. He's very close to being on pace to break the NFL records for fewest total punt return yards and fewest yards per return. It's a direct result of Ryan's punting quality and the amount of air he's able to put under the ball. It's the kind of historic run deserves some recognition.
COLQUITT & LEE vs RYAN
Let's take a deeper look at the numbers. In the Pro Bowl Voting so far, the leading punters are Dustin Colquitt of the Kansas Chiefs and Andy Lee of the San Francisco 49ers. How do these players compare to Jon Ryan?
Both have a higher gross average, but Colquitt has allowed about 300 return yards and Lee roughly 200 return yards. I say "roughly" because several big returns were called back by penalties. Should we still count those against the punter? Sometimes a ticky-tack block in the back makes no difference in the actual return. Sometimes. I'll give the numbers both ways. With the penalties counted, Colquitt's average gets a big boost because of an 89-yard TD return against the Chiefs that was nullified by an illegal block (Ryan gets a small increase for several holding penalties as well, even though there were no returns to negate).
DEEP PUNTS, SHORT PUNTS
All three punters are capable of booting it 60+ yards, and, indeed, all three of Colquitt, Lee and Ryan have knocked in a touchback from at least 60 yards out. So we'll use "own 40 yard line" as the dividing point where punters have to start angling their kicks and cannot simply let it fly.
Net yards (punt minus return), 61+ yards away:
Lee: 43.9 (45.1 with penalties) [39 punts]
Colquitt: 42.4 (45.8 with penalties) [32 punts]
Ryan: 44.2 (45.6 with penalties) [23 punts]
Net yards (punt minus return), 60 yards from goal line or closer:
Lee: 36.6 (36.6 w/penalties) [15 punts, 4 touchbacks, 8 inside the 20]
Colquitt: 33.6 (34.9 w/penalties) [30 punts, 7 touchbacks, 16 inside the 20]
Ryan: 38.0 (38.4 w/penalties) [21 punts, 3 touchbacks, 17 inside the 20]
Unsurprisingly, all punters rack up better averages when they have more room to punt. Colquitt and Ryan therefore take a bigger hit on their overall average, with each having to punt on a short field 48% of the time (compared to just 28% for Lee). Colquitt has the slightest edge on long range punts once he gets credit for opposition penalties, but Ryan is far and way the most efficient at placing the ball inside the 20.
ADJUSTED NET YARDS
To come up with a meaningful combined average of all punts, we need to make some kind of adjustment for close-range punts. I came up with the simple metric of giving one bonus yard for each yard inside the 20, applied to all punts from 60 yards out (a team's own 40-yard-line) or closer. This means that a punter working from midfield who gets the ball down at the 15-yard-line would get credit for a 40-yard punt (35 gross + 5 bonus yards), which is still slightly below the long-range average for all three of these punters. A punt from midfield that goes out of bounds or is downed at the 10-yard line (a fairly impressive feat) would count as a 50-yard punt (40 gross + 10 bonus yards).
Only the initial spot of the ball was counted. If a ball moved inside the 20 (or further inside the 20) as a result of a penalty, those penalty yards were counted with the penalty adjustment but not as additional bonus yards. The results:
Average net of all punts, with bonus yards for inside the 20:
Lee: 44.0 (44.8 w/ penalties)
Colquitt: 41.0 (43.3 w/ penalties)
Ryan: 45.0 (46.0 w/ penalties)
LOOK AT WHAT ELSE HE CAN DO
Punting's the thing, of course. But like many punters, Jon Ryan is also tasked with holding the ball on place kicks. So far this season, Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka is the NFL's leading scorer, having hit 32/32 extra points and 24/25 field goals (both percentages are best in the league). The lone "miss" was not even really a miss, but a block that resulted from a good opposition play against backup offensive linemen.
Speaking of which...
Check out NFL.com's video of the blocked field goal which the Indianapolis Colts returned for a touchdown. Jon Ryan chased down Delano Howell-- a safety-- from behind, got a hand on him, and forced him back to the inside. Howell still scored the touchdown, but if Ryan had had more trailing help there was a chance to tackle him. How many big, slow punters can do that?