So, you know you are running short of compelling story ideas when you decide to write about a punter – any punter! But, the Cowboys have some decisions to make this off season,so it is worth reviewing.
First of all, unless they shank a kick, get one blocked, or miss a flailing tackle on a long return for a touchdown, you rarely think about the punter. A punt just means your offense has failed to convert on 3rd down. If you watch the play at all and don’t head for the bathroom or to the kitchen it is only to make sure they get the kick off safely and don’t allow a big return. But today, it is an increasingly important part of the game. It can change field position – in a positive or negative way – which can ultimately determine the outcome of a game. A good punter can be an invaluable part of the overall game plan while a bad one can create consistent challenges for your defense.
The Cowboys have been fortunate to have a good punter for a number of years. Mat McBriar was signed to the Cowboys practice squad in December 2003; he took over the punting duties full time in 2004. He has twice been the NFC punter in the Pro Bowl (2006 and 2010). His 2006 season average was 48.2 yards per punt – the first player to achieve that mark since 1963 and the 5th best average in NFL history. He became the highest paid punter in the league at the time when he was re-signed in 2007 to a 5-year, $8.5 million dollar contract including a $2.5 million signing bonus. Big money for a guy who actually gets in the game for maybe 4-5 plays on an average game day!
Unfortunately, 6 games into the 2008 season, he fractured his kicking foot as Cowboy fans will painfully remember when his punt was blocked in overtime against the Arizona Cardinals and returned for the game-ending touchdown. Prior to that injury, he was averaging a whopping 49 yards per punt. His replacement, Sam Paulescu, only averaged 41.8 yards per punt for the balance of that season. The Cowboys went on to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs that year – not just due to the poor punting, but opponents starting field position improved significantly after McBriar went down. In the final 10 games, opponents started 8 possessions inside Dallas territory whereas that happened zero times in the first 6 games with McBriar.
In 2009, McBriar had one of his poorest seasons based on average (45.1/punt) but he also had a high number of punts (72) and did drop 38 of those kicks inside the 20 – the highest total of his career. He rebounded in 2010 and led the league in punting average (47.9) and net average (41.7) and made the Pro Bowl. In 2011 however, he was bothered by an injury to his plant foot and was placed on IR prior to the final game of the season. His average dropped off significantly in 14 games to 43.8 and a net of only 36.1 yards. Which brings us to 2012 and his contract situation.
McBriar will be an unrestricted free agent once the new league year starts on March 13th. As I see it, the Cowboys have 4 options at this position:
- Re-sign McBriar – McBriar has been a stellar punter but his plant-foot injury and recent removal of a cyst in his knee make his health a question mark that won’t be fully answered by mid March. At 32, he certainly is not old for a punter, but your ability to recover from injury does decline with age. His salary in 2011 was $1.7 million. It would probably take a multi-year deal at or above that range to keep him. I think the Cowboys may let him test the free agent market.
- Sign A Free Agent- In addition to McBriar, the table below lists the realistic options for the Cowboys to go after. Of this group, Colquitt would be the best value but even he would be a step down from a healthy McBriar. But, he comes from a family of punters (brother Dustin is the Chiefs punter and his father Craig punted for the Steelers in the 70s) and is likely only to get better. It would be nice to steal Weatherford from the NFC East rival Giants because of his age, but even he might be a step down from McBriar. If the Cowboys could get Colquitt or Weatherford or even Sepulveda (if he comes back from IR) at significantly less than the $1.7 million at least that McBriar will likely cost, it could save some valuable cap space.
Player Team Age 2011 Salary 2011 Avg Steve Weatherford NY Giants 29 $700,000 45.7 Donnie Jones St. Louis Rams 32 $1,100,000 44.3 Britton Colquitt Denver Broncos 27 $405,000 47.4 Sav Rocca Washington Redskins 39 $685,000 43.1 Daniel Sepulveda Pittsburgh Steelers 28 $650,000 46.1* *25 punts/IR Nov ‘11
- Stick With Chris Jones- When McBriar went down, the Cowboys turned to 22-year old rookie Chris Jones to fill in. While he only appeared in 2 games and punted the ball 10 times yielding a fairly anemic 42.6 yard average, his net was a healthy 40.5 average and he was able to put 4 of those kicks inside the 20. He is a raw talent but so was McBriar when he started in the league and they would certainly get him cheap. They could probably save as much as $1 million dollars in cap room.
- Draft A Punter – If you get the right guy, it can be a great way to stabilize the position for 4-5 years. The trick is getting the right guy that can make the transition from college to the NFL. And, you typically have to live with the learning curve. McBriar’s first 2 seasons with the Cowboys, he barely averaged over 42 yards per punt but improved greatly after that.
It will be interesting to see what happens here. It’s not likely to make the front page of any newspaper, but whether or not McBriar returns to full health, whether or not the Cowboys decide to pay him his market value, and who they get to replace him if necessary could have a meaningful impact on our 2012 season. Let’s hope Jerry and his braintrust are paying attention to this one.