A common criticism of the traditional stats used for players in situation-dependent positions like goaltender and pitcher is that the numbers are merely descriptive – they quantify what happened but can’t assign value to whether that outcome was good or bad depending on the situation that preceded it.
Sometimes we can tell. But often, there's too much else going on to definitively say whether a player has done good or bad based on these numbers alone. Goals against average, for example, tells you how many pucks went into the net, but it can’t describe how easy or difficult the saves were, the number of chances against or how the team played in front of the goaltender. Earned run average tells you how many runs a pitcher has been charged with per nine innings but says nothing of the defense behind him.
In football, one area where popular stats fail to account for situational effects is punting. Gross punting average simply shows how far the ball traveled, not how well it was kicked. Net punting throws the return into the mix. Hang time is important, but is much easier to amass on longer punts. Conservative coaching decisions and the ability of gunners to locate and down the ball will affect the number of punts a player has inside the 20, and all of these stats fail to account for the type of punt that was needed given the game situation.
While discussing punting statistics last week, Bills punter Colton Schmidt said he typically doesn’t even bother to look at another punter’s numbers. Punting, he said, is probably more situational than most people realize.
“Personally, I’ve always looked at it like: I don’t get control of where I kick from on the field or what the game situation is at the time,” Schmidt said. “So I just try to hit the best ball for that time. You could hit like a 30-yard punt, but it could be inside the 10 if you’re close. And on paper, 30 yards brings down your numbers by a lot, but it’s inside the 20. Or you could hit like a bunch of 60-yard punts because you’re backed up and have no inside-the-20s, but your average is high. It all depends on where you kick from.”
The Bills may be a good example of the shortcomings of punting numbers. Schmidt, who’s generally thought of as a good punter, ranks 31st in gross punting average (42.6 yards) out of 34 players who have punted this year. He ranks 12th, however, in punts inside the 20 (14) and leads the league in punts that have gone out of bounds (12) – though without context, that number is neither intrinsically good (no return) nor bad (shanked).
As a team, one area that the Bills seem to be excelling in limiting punt return yardage. They rank first in the NFL in opponent punt return average, allowing returners to gain just 5.2 yards before being tackled.
While that is great on the team level, it’s, A) largely affected by the other team, and B) not really what Schmidt is going for.
“I mean, personally I’m not trying to get them to return it,” Schmidt said. “A fair catch or kicking out of bounds would be ideal for me. Just because it’s pure net yardage, nothing bad, no possible chance of big return happening. Good punts, bad punts, anything can happen on them if the players make plays.
“The criteria I go by,” he added, “is hang time, direction, and distance. Hang time obviously gives the guys enough time to get down there, then isolate the return man to the sideline, or (I try to) kick it out of bounds – or try to land it right on the sideline, not too far out of bounds.”
Ranking punters by lowest percentage of punts returned, Schmidt’s 46.3 percent return rate would actually put him in the lower half of the league (22nd), though that would seem to be affected by the gutsiness (or desperation) of the returner. Given that Bills opponents have a few negative returns this year, maybe more of them should’ve fair caught or let the ball go.
So. The Bills are good at punting – we think. While it certainly has an individual component, punting may be more of a team stat than commonly thought … just like goaltending or pitching.
"It starts off with Colton giving us a great kick to give us an opportunity to go down and cover," gunner Kevon Seymour said. "We've been having good kicks, good opportunities, I guess. Just the luck of the draw. The football gods have been blessing us on special teams this year."