For years, Buffalo Bills punter Brian Moorman was widely recognized as one of the elite punters in the NFL. His status as such has been recognized in official circles - he was an All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl in 2005 and 2006 - as well as in unofficial, fan-based circles. For how many other NFL teams is the punter's jersey a common sighting at home games?
At the age of 35 during the 2011 campaign, Moorman averaged a career-best 48.2 yards per punt. Yet the Bills have brought in some competition for Moorman this year in the form of a consensus All-American rookie out of Florida State, Shawn Powell.
A big reason why the Bills have brought some competition in for Moorman may lie beyond the conventional way of measuring punters, such as hang-time and average punt yardage. Why else would they even entertain signing one of college football's top punting prospects if they didn't see room for improvement from the 36-year old Moorman?
Perhaps the answer lies in advanced statistics created, crunched, and analyzed by outlets such as Football Outsiders. I don''t profess to have the ability to properly explain or defend their numbers, but it's pretty evident to me that net yardage for punters would be a faulty metric.
For example: what's more valuable from a field position standpoint, a punt of 50 yards that results in a touchback, or a punt of 35 yards that pins a team inside their own five-yard line? What's better, a 55-yard punt that gets returned 12 yards, or a 45 yard punt that goes out of bounds? In both cases, it's the latter, of course.
Here's the relevant explanation for FO's punt stats:
The foundation of most of these special teams ratings is the concept that each yard line has a different value based on how the likelihood of scoring changes with better field position. In Hidden Game, the authors suggested that the value of field position for the offense existed on a straight line with your own goal line being worth -2 points, the 50-yard line 2 points, and the opposing goal line 6 points. (-2 points isn't just the value of a safety; it also reflects the fact that when you are backed up in your own zone, you are likely going to see your drive stall, and you'll need to punt and give the ball to the other team in good field position. Thus, the defense is more likely to score next.) We use a more refined set of values based on our research, but the idea is the same.
The special teams ratings compare each kick or punt to the league average for based on the point value of field position at the position of each kick, catch, and return. We've determined a league average for how far a kick goes based on the yard line from where the kick occurs (almost always the 30-yard line for kickoffs, variable for punts) and a league average for how far a return goes based on both the yard line where the ball is caught and the distance that it traveled in the air.
The kicking or punting team is rated based on net points compared to average, taking into account both the kick and the return if there is one. Because the average return is always positive, punts that are not returnable (touchbacks, out of bounds, fair catches, and punts downed by the coverage unit) will rate higher than punts of the same distance which are returnable. (This is also true of touchbacks on kickoffs.) There are also separate individual ratings for kickers and punters that are based only on distance and whether the kick is returnable, otherwise assuming an average return in order to judge the kicker separate from the coverage.
Are you still with me?
Here are the numbers for the Bills' punting game since 2005, with the league leader in parentheses. Remember that 2005 and 2006 were Moorman's All-Pro years:
- 2005: 7.5 (WAS 10.1)
- 2006: 16.1 (BUF 16.1)
- 2007: 7.2 (SF 18.1)
- 2008: 7.3 (BAL 20.9)
- 2009: 5.9 (OAK 18.2)
- 2010: -0.4 (BAL 17.4)
- 2011: -10.6 (CHI 19.7)
Looking at these numbers, it seems apparent that Moorman is officially in decline. Whether or not the Bills noticed this directly from his play, or actually do take advanced stats seriously, is debatable. After all, it's a hot topic in sports management philosophy these days. "To geek or not to geek."
What else should we know about Powell? He doesn't fit the soccer player prototype of most NFL kickers and punters, since he's 6'4'' and weighs 240 pounds. He's probably not the threat to fake that Moorman has been in his career, but there's also little chance of this happening to him. Oh, and the guy that he's trying to take a job from is entering the final year of his contract.