Playing the field

It was Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, a guy who understood the power of destructive defense, who first told punter Jeff Feagles that a gentle touch could accomplish as much as a well-timed blow to deflate an opponent. <BR><BR>

"Buddy Ryan always told me in Philadelphia you are one of my best defensive players," said Feagles, who played for the Eagles from 1990-93. "You've got to have that mentality as a punter. I need to perform and I pride myself in being able to help the team win. In a really close game, field position can really turn things around. You can see offensive coordinators flipping their pages looking for things to do when they are inside the 5."

Among Tom Coughlin's top priorities is coaching teams that dominate field position. But it's easier said than done. When Coughlin was coach of the Jaguars he had a punter, Bryan Barker, whom he felt had the proper respect for the value of controlling real estate. But now he's got Feagles, who may be the best the game's ever seen at dictating the delicate ebb and flow that often means the difference.

"I just hope I continue to do that for years to come," Feagles said. "Tom is just so focused on it [field position]. It's his thing, get the ball down there."

Eli Manning was 7 years old and just learning to hold his pencil across the seams when Feagles launched his first NFL punt for the Patriots in 1988. But as Giants history marches toward the Manning era it's safe to say the age differential has done little to diminish how significant a weapon each can be for the team during the next few years.

In his own unassuming way, Feagles, 37, has become one of the great punters in league history. That status is illustrated just as strongly through his performance as it is by the numbers he's accumulated in 16 seasons with five teams, the Patriots (1988-89), Eagles (1990-93), Cardinals (1994-97), Seahawks (1998-02) and Giants.

He has played in 260 consecutive games, each since his debut with the Patriots, a league record for a punter. He is just one of 10 players to have at least 1,000 punts and 200 games. And only former Giant Sean Landeta, currently with the Rams, has more punts. Prior to Sunday's game at Green Bay, Feagles (1,305) trailed Landeta by 34.

"I'm a little aware of it," Feagles said. "Guys will tell me about it. I've been fortunate in not getting hurt, which has enabled me to keep adding to the numbers."

But more significant is what he's done with them.

He's the NFL record holder at landing punts inside the 20, a statistic that became official in 1976. And that translates into the positive field position all coaches crave.

"Tom is a big fan of that play," Feagles said.

Feagles had not landed one inside the 10 this season until the Giants played the Browns Sept. 26 at Giants Stadium, when two of his four punts pinned the Browns at their 8 and 4.

What makes Feagles special is his approach. An avid golfer, he lines up a punt as if he was eyeing a tight green, aware how important repetitive motion, follow-through and thought are to production. That dedication resulted in Feagles' signature moment of the season against the Browns.

In the second quarter he floated a punt so precisely that David Tyree, the team's maven of special teams, had time to race downfield to hover under it and catch it in the air at the 4.

"It's something we spend a lot of time practicing," Tyree said. "You know, gunners are the playmakers of the punt team. You need to beat one or two guys to get down there. It's a rough day of work, but that's what our job is. And Jeff is doing an unbelievable job. When you have a weapon like Jeff, you need to make plays with it.

The play required specific timing and choreography.

"Much of that play depends on David getting off his block," Feagles said. "But what we have going for us on that play is, a lot of the guys on the receiving team don't want to be caught inside their 10, in case it hits them and we recover. So most teams tell them just to back off. That helps us make the play. After we downed it at the 4, the next time the Browns had a guy inside the 5, which is dangerous because Tyree could even push him into the ball.

"Still, I need to put the ball outside the numbers in the little corner for him to catch it. My first punt landed on the 14. David was wide open, so to speak, and I just didn't get it down there. The next time I did. It's almost like a quarterback and receiver hooking up on a long pass with no defender on him.

Feagles is a Giant because of kicks like that. Disgusted with special teams play in the wake of their playoff collapse at San Francisco following the 2002 season, management budgeted millions of free agent dollars to fix it.

Feagles had just completed a five-year deal with the Seahawks and wasn't very interested in leaving. But former Giants coach Jim Fassel remembered Feagles from their year together in Arizona (1996), and from a performance he'd turned in against the Giants for the Seahawks on Sept. 22, 2002 at Giants Stadium. Feagles averaged 47.8 yards on six punts, dropping three inside the 20, including a pair inside the 10.

"In the last seven to 10 years, the position has become almost a weapon for many coaches," Feagles said. "Where it started to click in for me, in terms of the kick-and-catch, as I call it, was in Seattle when we had, Alex Bannister, a Pro Bowl special teams player who had a knack for it. It takes a special talent because a lot of guys can't find the ball when they're blocked."

That performance convinced the Giants to give Feagles a five-year deal the Seahawks weren't willing to commit to. And Feagles paid his first dividend during an otherwise dour 2003 by leading the NFC with 31 punts inside the 20.

For the first time his career, Feagles reported to training camp without competition, forcing him and the coaches to develop a daily kick count to keep his leg fresh for the season. With each of those kicks he continued to work himself into shape for all the seasons he hopes are still coming.

"There was a time early in my career when I worried, because young guys need to prove themselves over and over," Feagles said. "But as time has gone on, I never really worried because I didn't think anyone could take it. And that's still how I feel. The day will come eventually when I'm not playing, but it will either be because I don't want to play or my skills have diminished."


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