Unless their personalities border on the extreme and they're known as the roster's wackiest flake (or they munch on candy bars in between kicks) punters are provided as much television exposure as a third-party candidate in last week's Norm Coleman-Walter Mondale local senatorial debate.
Officials, owners, offensive and defensive coordinators, sideline reporters, trainers — even some front-row fans — get more air time than punters. Then again, how much does it help ratings when a TV camera focuses on a punter as he paces the sidelines, kicks into a net and interacts with no teammates other than the place-kicker and long-snapper?
Welcome to life as an NFL punter, where you never have to worry about being mobbed — even recognized — at a mall, theater or even outside of your own stadium. Your sole job is to punt. You come onto the field when the offense has failed, often to a chorus of boos because fans want to see your offense attempt to buck the odds on a fourth-and-15 rather than watch you demonstrate your trade.
Fans pay dearly to watch their team's offense and defense perform, but when the punting unit enters the field, it can serve as extended bonus time to run to the concession stands or hit the bathrooms before the next series.
"I think punters are misunderstood," Vikings punter Kyle Richardson said. "The validity of punting … it's an important part of the game based on the NFL nowadays. A game can come down to one play that will help a team win, controlling field position and keeping the opponent deep. The odds of a team scoring from 90 yards away is greater than 80, which is greater than 70, which is greater than 60."
Even though fans can't see it, most punters are on the move for the entire three-hour game.
"I would like to know how many miles I walk on the sidelines during the season," Richardson said. "I'm constantly in motion during the game. It works for me. Whether I'm stretching or doing something to keep loose, I'm moving around. Those are all things you have to do."
For Richardson — and most kickers — it's all about a routine.
Whenever his team's offense has the ball, he stays on his feet and in motion. Realizing he's never more than three plays from punting, Richardson takes snaps from his long-snapper, kicks into a net or paces back and forth while watching his offense out of the corner of his eye. When his team's defense is on the field, he tries to sit on the bench, hoping to stay calm, trying to keep his legs fresh.
Richardson is midway through his sixth NFL season. His routine has become habitual. It has produced outstanding results, so he sees no reason to switch. That would be bad luck.
"I don't call it superstitious, I call it a routine," Richardson said. "It gets down to what helps you succeed. It's all about what works. What did you do during that day that made a positive impact?
"During a game, my routine is when the offense has the ball I'm constantly working the drop, and having (Hayden) Epstein throw me the ball and I drop it back to him. Then, on third down, I take the ball from him, I go to the sideline where I think I'm going to work and I watch the play. On fourth down, I'll throw the ball so I can have one more feel before I go out there. I run out, I look and see how many people will be coming at me, and I can tell then if I can stay with my game plan and kick left or right or up the middle."
Richardson is not quite as routine as "Melvin" from "As Good as it Gets," but it's close. Then again, it's hard to argue Richardson's results.
Richardson was a walk-on at Arkansas State and left the program four years later with one of the highest punting percentages in school history. After going undrafted, he spent a season overseas punting in NFL Europe.
It was that punting escapade across The Pond that gave his professional career a kick-start. "It gave me some validity and some good stats," said Richardson, an unknown on draft day. "I didn't know then that it would make my NFL career."
Richardson returned to the United States and replaced injured Miami Dolphins punter John Kidd midway through the 1997 season and played three games there. Richardson was released once Kidd was healthy, and he punted two games for Seattle that same season.
"There I was, an undrafted guy, and they were going to give me a chance," Richardson said. "My teammates didn't know me because I wasn't drafted. Hey, I didn't have to suffer all the hazing as a rookie."
The biggest break of his career came when Baltimore signed Richardson before the 1998 season. The Ravens had a philosophy that stressed the importance of a punter.
Having one of the best defenses in NFL history, the Ravens didn't ask much of quarterback Trent Dilfer. Basically, if he didn't throw interceptions, the Ravens would win. Playing a battle of field position, head coach Brian Billick appreciated a reliable punter, one who could pin opponents inside their 20-yard line.
That's all the Ravens defense would need. Billick became the Ravens head coach after the 1998 season. Before the '99 season, Billick met with Richardson.
"Billick said, ‘Look, Kyle, you're my punter and we're not going to look at stats. Your role is to control field position.' When I had the opportunity to get them down inside the 20, that was what I needed to do," Richardson said. "I realized I wouldn't make the Pro Bowl doing that, but if that was what the team needed, I would do that.
"In Baltimore, the whole offensive scheme was to not turn the ball over, move the ball 30 or 40 yards, and if we couldn't get a field goal we'd punt. That worked and I think it was something I ended up doing pretty well."
Richardson excelled under Billick. In 1999, Richardson led the NFL with a league-record 39 punts inside the 20-yard line. In 2000, he once again led the league with 35 punts inside the 20 and capitalized the season by helping the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV. Last season, he led the AFC with 29 punts inside the 20.
When the Ravens didn't re-sign Richardson, head coach Mike Tice and the Vikings wasted little time.
"I came up here for a visit and met with Coach Tice and he was looking for just the kind of punter I was, somebody who could control field position and get the ball inside the 20," Richardson said.
If the Vikings were to issue midseason report cards, Richardson might be one of the few ‘A's on the entire roster. Through eight games, he is averaging 41.2 yards per punt — his highest in three years.
Regardless of his success, he keeps looking forward, always going through his daily routine that concludes on Sundays. That is the day of pacing and moving while the offense is on the field, doing the opposite when the defense is playing. Every step he makes is in preparation for his next kick.
"It isn't about the punt I just had, it's about that punt that's coming up," Richardson said. "It's always about the next kick. If I can always stay in that frame of mind, I'll be all right."
Favorite movie: Pulp Fiction, The Outlaw of Josey Wales, the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan
Favorite actors: Clint Eastwood, Harvey Kaitel
Favorite actress: Jennifer Anistan
Favorite TV show: Hogan's Heroes
Favorite music: 1980s pop
If I wasn't playing football: I'd be sitting behind a desk in a cubicle trying to please someone else.
Getting To Know: P Kyle Richardson
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