When anyone attempts to analyze a sport, whether it’s football, baseball, basketball or hockey, the one aspect of the game that is invariably picked apart more than others are the statistics associated with their positions.
For quarterbacks, those stats include completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio. For running backs, it’s yards per attempt. For defensive pass rushers, it’s sacks.
For punters? It may be another story.
There are two numbers that punters are rated on – gross punting average (the distance of punts) and net punting average (the yardage when returns are factored in).
Heading into play this week, Locke ranks 25th in gross punting average at 43.2 yards. But, when it comes to net punting average, Locke is 16th at 39.9 yards. As would be expected, Locke’s attention is firmly on the second number, not the first.
“I have not even looked at my gross punting numbers in a long time,” Locke said. “I try to focus on each punt as it comes and have the net number be what we’re looking for. Those numbers at the end of the day work themselves out.”
Locke has been a standout this season because he has embraced the philosophy special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has installed in terms of punting and has altered his game to fit that system.
In a different system, could Locke be of those guys who routinely launches 50- and 60-yard punts?
“That’s a great question that we may never know,” Locke said. “I’ve been with Prief for four years now. I just punt the type of punts that he’s looking for and that’s not the 60-yard bomb. We don’t do that here. How we do things here, we’re trying to eliminate space for the return man. We don’t try to kick where a guy has 15 yards of space as the ball is coming down. It puts our guy in a bad position.”
Locke has embraced his role on the punt team to the extreme. Even when he’s warming up in the offseason and working on his craft, he doesn’t stray from what he has been instructed by Priefer.
It hasn’t changed much in the four years Locke has played for the Vikings – from his rookie year at the Metrodome, two years at TCF Bank Stadium and now back inside at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Even in the offseason I practice what works for this team,” Locke said. “I go in the offseason and Prief will tell me what he wants for the next season and it doesn’t change all that much from the scheme we have now. I want to have more focus on hang time than crazy distance. For me, I’d rather have a 41-yard fair catch than a 60-yarder that could get returned a long way. You’re just asking for trouble.”
What Locke prides himself on most is dropping kicks inside the 20-yard line. Only two punters have pinned opponents inside the 20 more than Locke’s 13 times and one of them has played six games instead of the five Locke has played.
As part of the Vikings special teams philosophy, playing field position is critical. They are convinced that if Locke does his job and keeps a team buried near the goal line, it becomes virtually impossible for them to drive the length of the field and put points up against the Vikings’ stingy defense.
“I think the stats prove that,” Locke said. “With this defense, if we put the ball inside the 20 and make them start from there, not only don’t we give up touchdowns, we rarely give up points.”
As Locke sees it, his role on special teams has just as much value as the stars of the offense and defense. If a team is going to be consistently successful, they need every player that takes the field to hold up his end of the bargain.
By just about any measure, Locke has done his job at a high level and he has earned his stripes as the Vikings punter. The Vikings stress the three phases of football working together, not as individual groups. When all three are working in sync, it can be a sight to behold.
“We take pride in that as a team playing what we call complementary football,” Locke said. “We all try to help each other out. If I can pin a team on the 10-yard line, we’re confident our defense can get a three-and-out, Marcus (Sherles) can get a punt return and the offense can turn that into points. When you’re getting consistently, that is beautiful football right there.”