The 2016 season was the best ever for punters in the NFL. Maybe that’s a bad thing.
According to statistics posted by Jaguars Senior V.P. Tony Khan, the 2016 season was the best since at least 2000 in a wide variety of categories.
The average of 40.1 net yards per punt was the best ever. The percentage of punts landed inside both the 20-yard line (38.8 percent) and inside the 10-yard line (13.8 percent) was the best ever. The average post-punt field position of the receiving team’s own 25-yard line was the worst ever. And there were more punts of 70 or more yards than ever before.
But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Punts are among the most boring plays in football. There’s a reason that the Red Zone Channel usually cuts away from punts. The Rams were perhaps the most boring team in the NFL last season, even though their punter, Johnny Hekker, was the best in the league. Fans enjoy scoring and the very nature of punting is to prevent scoring — it’s the offense giving up, and trying to put the other team as far away from scoring as possible. Occasionally something exciting happens in the NFL, with a blocked punt or a punt return touchdown, but that’s exceedingly rare: There were 2,335 punts in the NFL last season, with just 10 returned for touchdowns and seven blocked.
The NFL could consider some rules changes that would make punts more exciting, such as requiring the punting team to give the returner two yards of space to make the catch — the old “halo rule” that college football dropped in 2003. However, a rule that would encourage more returns could result in more injuries on returns, and the NFL has already shown with its changing rules on kickoffs that that’s the last thing the league office wants.
And so we may be stuck with a league in which punters are dominant, to the detriment of the excitement of the game.