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By the Numbers: Punting
Many football fans have heard coaches talk about the “three phases” of the game. The key to winning is to beat the other team in these different categories — offense, defense, and special teams. Offense and defense are always in the spotlight with spectacular touchdowns and big stops, but highlights and commentary rarely discuss special teams unless there was a game winning or losing field goal.
However, there is more to special teams than field goals. There is the unglamorous world of the punter. Nobody is happy to see their punter on the field because it means, in most cases, that the ball is going over to the other team, but this position is crucial to a football team.
Big Red football is lucky to have an amazing punter, Chris Fraser, who has been recognized with numerous awards, most notably for being on the first-team All-Ivy for four years. He started all four seasons for Cornell and amassed 9,234 punting yards on 216 kicks. Fraser has put up some ridiculous statistics averaging almost 43 yards per punt and not having a single punt blocked, but how much does his punting actually help the team?
To understand what Fraser’s kicks do for the Big Red, we will look at the program’s statistics from this past season. Punting is all about field position, and analyzing the field position of Cornell’s opponents at the start of drives can provide some insight into the importance of the punt.
Oppositions recorded a total of 127 offensive drives this fall. The average starting field position was about their own 28 yard line, and 48 of those drives led to a score with an average of 2.31 points by the opposing team per drive. These overarching totals do not reveal much about punting, but, on the surface, there are a couple statistics that stand out. Opponents scored on 37.8% of drives in general, but, if you only look at drives started after a punt (55 for the 2016 season), that percentage drops to 34.5%.
If the drives are all arranged by starting yardage, the importance of field position becomes very clear. The drives were sorted into five different groups based on starting yardages. Inside the opponent’s own 15 yard line, 15-20, 21-25, 26-40, and any starting yardage closer than 40 (each category represents between 20-35 drives).
The average points scored per drive were then calculated for the five categories. It is obvious that the less distance a team needs to travel, the more points they will score, but even small difference in starting yardage can be impactful. The difference in average points from the 26-40 yard range and the 15 and less was almost a full point per drive. The data also supports the strategy of punting on the majority of fourth downs. The statistics show that drives starting closer than the 40 yard line scored, on average, two more points than drives starting behind the 25 yard line. Two points per drive is very significant when the opposing team has around 13 drives each game.
Another way to look at the data is to just examine the percentage of drives that ended in a score for the opponent. This graph had a similar appearance and reinforced the first analysis.
It is clear that field position matters, and punters like Fraser make a big difference for a football team. Pushing opponents back to their end of the field is crucial to winning a game. The punter deserves a lot of credit in the field position battle. For example, another of Fraser’s feats was pinning the opposing team on their 20 yard line or closer on 29 of his 55 punts. Fraser is responsible for the majority of those great kicks, but the special teams unit as a whole deserves some credit.
Even if the punter can boot the ball 72 yards (Fraser’s career long) every time, he still needs other players to make sure the opposing team does not run the ball back for a touchdown or big gain. Also, if there does happen to be a return for a touchdown, the blame does not fall on the punter, but again the special teams group as a whole.
The punter is not a glamorous position, but a very important one. The Big Red has been glad to have Fraser as a punter for four years, and, while great punting has not always translated into wins, it has helped the team immensely.