Size isn’t everything.
That’s what they say, at least, and in the case of NFL punters, it’s true. About their punts, that is.
It’s also true that not all punts are created equal. And that’s where we pick up the story of Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry, because it’s one of the keys to understanding his season from a statistical perspective.
Most of us can think of at least a few bad punts from Berry this year. That’s fair; after all, it’s human nature to remember the negative events more than the positive. It’s why it’s nearly impossible to find uplifting stories on the nightly news. It’s also why many will have a generally negative view of Berry’s year. That, and the fact that we have become accustomed to bad punters in Pittsburgh. When yet another one doesn’t seem to leap off the screen at us, we chalk it up to another in a long line of misses at the position.
But what if I told you that Jordan Berry was the third-best punter in the NFL in 2015? Better yet, what if I told you that the margin between him and the number-one punter, Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt, was just under 0.5 percent?
Most of us would probably look at Berry's 2015 performance and feel like it wasn't much of an improvement over the Steelers' last two punters, Brad Wing and Drew Butler. In a way, we'd be right. But Berry did some things very well in 2015, and also faced situations largely dissimilar to his predecessors. It all added up to a pretty doggone impressive season.
At this point, you are undoubtedly wondering what measure I could have used. It wasn’t yards, gross average or net average. It was a combination of factors, including touchbacks, fair catches and kicks downed inside the 20, weighted as follows:
- Net Average Yards x 10
- Percentage of kicks out of bounds x 5
- Percentage of kicks downed x 5
- Percentage of kicks fair-caught x 5
- Percentage of kicks that ended in a touchback x 3
- Percentage of kicks that were blocked x -10
Note: Percentages were used so punters were not penalized for fewer kicks than others.
There was also a bonus of three points added for any kick that ended inside the 20. For example, a kick downed at the 17 would be worth eight points, while a kick downed at the 23 would be worth five points. For reference, here are the stats for all punters with 50 or more kicks:
Like any year, punting statistics vary wildly because of the situational nature of the plays. Using these stats and the above weighting, though, we end up with the following rankings:
The first thing that stands out is Berry doesn't lead the league in any of the scored categories, but he is near the top in several. He also led the league in unreturned kick percentage (out-of-bounds, downed, fair catches and touchbacks). A total of 40 out of his 59 kicks were not returned, good for 67.8 percent. That means that fewer than one out of every three kicks generated a return for the other team. Some of that is a testament to his coverage team, but much is also on his ability to generate hang time.
Another thing that stands out is that he was tied for third in fewest touchbacks with two, including on his final kick of the year against Cleveland. A mere five percent of his unreturned kicks were touchbacks which, unsurprisingly, left him third in the league in that statistic as well.
Let's also not forget that he also had the longest punt in the NFL all season long, at 79 yards. Unfortunately, even for such a great punt, it ended up as one of his two touchbacks.
If you were to look at Berry's performance on a per-punt basis, and you only looked at the distance of some of his punts, you would see that better than one third of them traveled fewer than 40 yards -- not a great stat. Of those 23 punts, though, 14 of them ended up inside the 20. Indeed, Berry has quickly become a very good situational punter. How good? Berry had 15 punts from midfield or beyond; all 15 of them were downed inside the 20. He had that many punts from opponents' territory because the Steelers' offense had it's second-best year ever in 2015, netting them more yards per drive than most other teams.
In fact, it seems he struggles the most when he tries to kick the ball as far as he can. We know he's capable of kicking deep -- he had 12 punts of 50 yards or more -- but he seems to try a little too hard at times, resulting in shanked punts. That's all part of his feel for the game, and it's something he should develop as time goes by. Don't forget that he came to the Steelers through Aussie-Rules Football, where the field can be as large as 202 yards by 170 yards. Directional kicking is a bit more forgiving when your field is measured in counties rather than square feet.
One final note: by my scoring method, Berry came in one spot ahead of Brad Wing, who was traded to the Giants during the pre-season after Berry won the starting job. Arizona's Drew Butler, who preceded Wing as the Steelers' punter, ended up 28th.
It may not be a huge improvement, but it was still an improvement. And Berry has the strong leg and situational ability the team needs. He just needs to learn to harness his power a bit better.