Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lechler's punt on the Texans and the Raiders silver lining

The NFL's best punter, Shane Lechler, has signed with the Houston Texans after 13 seasons with the Oakland Raiders, and fans in the Bay Area are surely kicking themselves.

Oakland won't be short of people swinging their boots, if that's what you were thinking.

Lechler signed a three-year $5.5 million deal with the Texans, significantly lower than what the late Al Davis was willing to pay him---a record punting fee of $16 million for four years back in 2008. But economies have since collapsed, Twinkies have faced extinction, and Justin Timberlake does everything now except run the Vatican. Times have changed.

Despite the fact he's only 36, and plans to play 20 seasons in all (which would mean seven more), the Raiders are clearly not seeing Lechler in the same light. Assuming they are wearing their eye patches over the correct eye, it may be because the punter's net yards were slightly down last season.

Net yards seem very important to NFL teams, even though the punter has no real control over that statistic---not unless he's sprinting down field after scratching his nose with the toe of his cleat, and wrestling the punt returner into the grass himself. I'm not sure that even Usain Bolt could achieve such a feat, though wouldn't be surprised if a pro football team similarly forked out $16 million for the service.

Lechler netted 39 yards per punt last season, lower than his career average of about 41. This type of discrepancy causes more panic in pro football clubhouses than warm Gatorade. But he has booted 47 yards per punt over his career, not including the adjustment of returns or penalties. This should count for, well, everything, because it relates to the actual distance of his kicks.

Lechler has also admitted that he rushed back from a knee injury last season, and that it took him a month to be back on his game. "During the second half of the season, I felt like I was back to my old self," he told reporters in Houston recently.

Of course, there are many other aspects that factor into punting, and the associated squad that charges towards the man returning, such as the amount of time the ball hangs in the air. Lechler has been consistent on all of these fronts for many years, which is why so many people regard him as the best punter ever. You only need to scan his career stats to realize this. For example, Lechler kicked for 4,503 yards for an average of 47 yards per punt in 2003. His net average per punt that season was just 37 yards. That particular campaign, the Raiders won just four games, and were obliterated on the road (0-8). Not surprisingly then, returners tallied 699 yards on Lechler's 2003 punt total.

Last season, Lechler punted for 3,826 yards all up, with returners only logging 450 yards. So while he punted for fewer yards, they were likely more effective kicks with a better net average per punt than during the monster year, nine seasons earlier. So, I'm not certain I see the Raiders logic here in letting Lechler go, because up or down, he's been relatively consistent.

We do know that the Raiders picked up Marquette King in last draft, who supposedly has more leg than Heidi Klum. For Fort Valley State University in 2011, King led his team's conference in punting with a 43 yards per punt average, and 16 of them were for 50 yards or more. And due to a towering 80-yarder once, his legend has preceded his NFL career.

So Oakland and its fan base are no doubt giddy at the prospect of King. But Lechler's shoes are mighty ones to fill, especially before an intimidating audience of pirates, ghouls and skeleton bikers.

Good luck, kid.

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