Punters are a little like long-relief pitchers in baseball: they're needed by every team, and they are rarely acknowledged until they mess up and cost their teams.
Dallas punter Mat McBriar is an exception to the rule. After firmly establishing himself as one of the NFL's elite punters, McBriar — now entering his seventh season in the league — was rewarded in 2007 with a five-year contract that compensates him better than any punter in the league except Oakland's Shane Lechler. If anyone needed any further evidence of value, they need only watch the replay of Arizona Cardinals special teamer Sean Morey blowing through the Dallas line to block a McBriar punt. The ball was recovered by Arizona's Monty Beisel for the game-winning touchdown, and McBriar was left in a heap on the turf, with multiple fractures in his kicking foot — including one in one of his metatarsal bones, right where his foot strikes the ball — and ankle, as well as torn ligaments.
McBriar was in a cast for nearly two months, after which he began rehabilitation. He started punting again — lightly — in February, and has been taking part on a limited basis in the Cowboys' Organized Team Activities (OTAs) for the last three weeks.
"You know, it's OK if I rest it, but it gets a bit sore if I kick on (consecutive days)," McBriar said. "So I kicked yesterday and the day before, and again today, so it's sore now."
McBriar's participation in OTAs at Carrollton's Standridge Stadium has been limited to drifting downfield very tenderly after the JUGS machine simulates kickoffs in special teams drills. He does so wearing sneakers, and going nowhere near the other players — just gentle jogging up and down the field. From then on, he stands on the side of the field, watching and stretching. Only when the rest of the team breaks practice and heads for the buses back to Valley Ranch does he don his kicking cleats, punting fewer than 20 times before heading to the bus himself.
"It's fine — it's there," he said when asked if he has regained the distance and hangtime on his punts that made him one of the NFL's elite punters. "But I'm rested up, and today I had the wind."
McBriar said he expects to take part in all drills during the team's training camp this summer and anticipates being "about 100 percent" by the time the season opens, but admitted that he is surprised the team hasn't signed another punter as an insurance policy.
"I wouldn't say that they won't — I think they probably still will — but I've always had another here with me," he said. "They should — it's the smart thing to do. But I'm being careful with my foot, I'm getting better and I'll be ready."
Alive and kicking
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