Friday, June 8, 2007

A Tale of Two Punters

Out of all the darts that critics thrown at the reign of Mike Sherman, it may be his error as a coach that worsened his most decried move as a general manager.

In the forgettable 2004 draft, Mike Sherman likely sealed his fate as a soon-to-be-ex-GM with his first day picks, which included Ahmad Carroll, Joey Thomas, and Donnell Washington. But the pick that drew the most criticism was the third-round pickup of punter BJ Sander.

Picking a kicker on the first day is quite rare, and reserved for only the cream of the crop. In this past 2007 draft, the first kicker wasn’t taken until the fifth round. Punters, of course, are rarer than a blue moon on the first day of the draft. Sherman compounded the mistake by actually trading up to take Sander.

Now, the discussion and debate on the Sander pick has certainly been exhausted, but we’re not going to talk any more about the pick itself, but what happened afterwards. Because, what Sherman the GM did to Sander, putting an enormous amount of pressure to prove himself, was almost as bad as what Sherman the Coach did to him.

Kickers are an odd breed in football. While quarterbacks can throw harder, running backs can run faster, linemen can hit harder, and defenders can punish fiercer, when a kicker hits some frustration, they have only one thing they can do.

They go out and kick exactly the same way. Same motion. Same timing. Same focus. Like a golf swing. For all the differences in physical size a kicker has compared to the rest of his teammates, what sets him most apart is the methodical, repetitive job itself, and the lack of intensity he can bring to it. You can’t push yourself to “kick harder” or “kicker fiercer”.

As BJ Sander took the field that summer, he already had one huge strike against him: the frustration with Mike Sherman was being taken out on him by fans and media alike. That in and of itself has torched the careers of other kickers: Brett Conway is a great example.

But, it was at that point Sherman and his staff made another critical error that sealed Sander’s fate. Sander kicked his entire life as a three-step punter. It was his natural motion, honed for years and years: a style that made him successful in his years at Ohio State.

But, it was decided that that style wouldn’t be good enough in the NFL, and that Sander had to change it to a shorter approach. The reasoning was that, in the NFL, three steps will get your punt blocked.

But the move backfired completely. Taking a pressure-saturated kid, like Sander, already with the weight of his draft position hanging over his head, and forcing him to change how he did his job resulted in some of the ugliest shanks we’ve ever seen from a Packer punter. The control and timing of your punting approach is very much like your golf swing.

Changing your approach in training camp of the NFL, before the kid has had a chance to even adjust to the speed of the next level, is like honing your golf game for years and years. When you finally get your exemption to play in your first major as an amateur, your new coach tells you that you have to hit from the opposite side of the tee. “Take a couple practice shots, and you can master it while you play the tournament!” he says.

And we all know the results with BJ Sander, a kid who didn’t ask for his draft position, didn’t ask to be traded up for, and didn’t ask to have his entire style changed in training camp. He had three strikes against him before he took his first snap.

Now, fast forward to 2007. A new GM, a new coach, and also, a new punter. Jon Ryan earned kudos for a relatively uneventful but respectable rookie year as the punter for new coach Mike McCarthy. But, unnoticed during his 2006 campaign, when he averaged 44.5 yards per punt (good enough for 9th in the NFL), he also still kicked with his college and CFL style: a three-step approach, just like BJ Sander.

But Coach Mike McCarthy and special teams coach Mike Stock, just like Sherman and former special teams coach John Bonamengo, saw the three-step approach as a liability. They also knew that Ryan would be more effective if he could shorten his approach and get the ball off more quickly and consistently.

But, Stock and McCarthy did one thing very different: they discussed the idea with Ryan, but did not ask him to make any adjustments until after his first full season as the punter for the Green Bay Packers. Unlike Sander, who was asked to shorten to only a two-and-a-quarter step approach, Ryan is being asked to shave off a full step. But, he has been given a full offseason to work on it, with the confidence of entering 2007 as a veteran.

The reasons for the change, according to McCarthy, are Ryan’s inconsistent hang-times, which he says affected his 35.7 net yards per punt. Ryan’s net average ranked in the bottom ten of NFL punters.

"We need to be more consistent in the punting," said McCarthy during the last minicamp. "That's something we addressed in our team goals for the upcoming year."

So far, the difference between how Stock and McCarthy have handled the punting situation seems to be paying off.

"It was Coach Stock's idea, but I recognized last year there were times when I could have been more consistent," Ryan said. "If you look at it on film, my steps were getting too long, and I was too out of control. We thought if I could eliminate that first step and just take two steps, everything would be more compact and more consistent.

“I feel more comfortable with this than I did last year at this time with the three steps," Ryan continued. "Hopefully, that's going to show come training camp and during the season that I worked on it and improved a lot."

Indeed, Ryan’s offseason efforts appear to have made a difference in his performance so far at the minicamps. Not only has his power seemed more consistent, he is kicking the directional punts with more command than he had at any time last season.

You can stick a feather in coach Mike McCarthy’s hat. He recognized a need, but had the wisdom to realize that not only would he very possibly mess up a punter’s approach by changing him on the fly as a new punter in the NFL, but, like Sander, possibly mess up his entire career. McCarthy bit the bullet with Ryan last season, allowing him to build up his confidence before proposing a change that would require a lot of time and patience for him to have confidence in himself.

"It's a big change, but I think I put enough hours into it this offseason that the more I reps I got, the more comfortable I got," Ryan said. "I'd say I'm about 90 percent comfortable with it. I think it will increase hang time. I don't think power is my problem. It's just harnessing that power a little bit more and trying to be more consistent."

And so, as BJ Sander sits, unemployed by the NFL, many say he has no one to blame but himself. But many things were way out of his control, and the decision to make changes to his approach as a rookie may have been his ticket out of the NFL before he ever got a chance to make a regular season attempt.

Someday, Sander may be able to look at a young Canadian punter who some will claim has the ability to make adjustments better than BJ did. The comparisons are inevitable, and there are enough people out there who still find the need to keep the crosshairs on Sander in order to justify their dissatisfaction with Sherman.

Or, Jon Ryan can look back upon this offseason, and be thankful that Stock and McCarthy learned from the mistakes of the past. Ryan may indeed become a solid, successful punter in the NFL, and the Packers can proudly state they did not even waste a draft pick on him.

BJ Sander will likely be watching Packer games on television this upcoming season, but his experiences may have paved the way for another man to have the success his draft position suggested he should have had.

"It's more mental than anything, believing that you can still get the same amount of power with shorter strides," Ryan said. "The toughest thing is just getting over that mental hurdle. Once you get over that, you're fine."

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