When those who break down numbers and conduct analytic studies collected all the information on the 2015 season to look at what the Minnesota Vikings did best and worst, one of the statistics that jumped out was the comparative numbers for punter Jeff Locke.
There are two punting statistics that the NFL keeps to compare and contrast the effectiveness of punters – their gross average (how far punts travel on the fly) and their net punting average (how far they end up after return yardage is factored in). In both cases, if you were looking for Locke you found him in all the wrong places.
When it came to gross punting average, Locke finished dead last among the 32 punters with enough attempts to qualify. His 41.6-yard average was 6.3 yards worse than league leader Johnny Hekker of the Rams.
It wasn’t much better for net punting average. Locke finished 30th among 32 punters with a net average of 37.8 yards per punt, an average of 5.9 yards worse than Hekker, who led the league in that category as well.
But, when all was said and done, when the Vikings headed to training camp last week, Locke was the only punter on the roster, which is something special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is fine with.
“The two young men that we brought into the rookie minicamp did a really nice job and were obviously on the top of our list,” Priefer said. “We went through the spring hoping Jeff would have a good spring and he really did, so we decided we were going to go with one right now. Jeff obviously got us through two difficult years outdoors at TCF Stadium. That’s a tough place to punt, especially in November, December and January.”
Nobody would argue that. The Vikings did more than their fair share of studies about the unique logistics of TCF Bank Stadium – a college stadium that wasn’t intended to have games played on it after early November. The impact of wind and cold on punters wasn’t part of the blueprint of the stadium.
In fact, given what they learned months before the players ever set foot in TCF Bank Stadium to play a game, Priefer was expecting that there would be issues unique to that stadium – from swirling winds to the field running in a counter direction to how other NFL fields are laid out.
With those factors weighed in, Priefer said Locke’s numbers weren’t as bad as they appeared.
“I thought he did a lot better job than the numbers say he did, and a lot of people got on him about his numbers,” Priefer said. “But if you go back and look at it, nobody wants to punt at TCF with the weather and the winds we get there. There was not one punter I talked to that wanted to punt at TCF. I thought Jeff really helped us out and did a great job as a holder for us. He’s got to have a good camp here or we’ll end up bringing in competition. But, for right now, it’s Jeff.”
The landscape for the kicking game is going to change significantly when the Vikings move into U.S. Bank Stadium. Weather won’t be an impact and, if there are breezes running through the stadium, it will be the result of intended consequences of having the iconic doors open on the stadium.
With Locke returning to more clinical kicking conditions, Priefer said the numbers had better improve as a result and, along the way, Locke needs to get more consistent because he won’t be kicking under adverse conditions as often as he was the last two seasons.
“He needs to be a much more consistent performer,” Priefer said. “(Monday) he had a couple of good punts and a couple of punts that weren’t very good. He needs to be the most consistent guy in the league that we can rely on, especially when we’re going indoors. When we punted indoors for three games last year, I think he had six or seven punts. We had outstanding games and he really helped us with field position. So, if he can translate that and continue to get stronger and better when we go to U.S. Bank and when we go to Detroit for indoor games, we’ve got something. He’s got to continue to improve as he goes outside. For him, it’s all about consistency.”
The Vikings have a philosophy on punting that the best way to win field-position battles isn’t to have their punters prove how far they can bomb a football. Rather, their plan entails punting the ball higher, sacrificing distance at times to allow the coverage team to get to ball by the time it comes down.
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It’s Locke’s job heading into 2016 and Priefer isn’t asking the moon from him. He’s asking him to execute his job and be consistent. If he does that, Priefer and the rest of the coaching staff won’t have any complaints.
“If we can net over 40 yards, I’ll be happy,” Priefer said. “We were fifth in the league punt coverage. We had a really good cover team and Jeff was a part of that. He’s not going to kick it 60 yards with a 4.2 hang time, because that’s going to hurt our coverage and they have the opportunity for a big play. So we’re going to kick them a little bit higher and a little bit shorter than a lot of teams and let’s go cover.”
The NFL will continue to keep the same numbers for punters in 2016 that they have for decades, but, when it comes to Locke and the Vikings punt team, the raw numbers won’t be the be all and end all of the discussion.