Football is a weird sport. It’s not uncommon for people to compare the sport to chess, and while some say it’s because of the strategic decision making and layered attack that each team employs, I believe there’s another reason. It’s the only sport with pawns. It’s the only major sport where entire positions are seen as less valuable than other positions.
All five positions have won MVP in the NBA as well as all six in the NHL. In Baseball, all ten field positions, including both starting and relief pitchers have been named Most Valuable Player. Though, it should be noted a Designated Hitter has never won MVP, which entirely makes sense for a role which by definition has no playing position.
Then there’s football. Despite football teams having dozens of unique positions, the MVP award has been won by either a quarterback or a running back 46 of the 49 times it’s been awarded. Despite being on the field for just as long as the offence, defenders have been named MVP only twice (defensive tackle Alan Page, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor), while a special teams player has only ever once when kicker Mark Moseley claimed the surprise win in 1982.
So what about the other positions? When do they get their chance to shine? We’ve never even seen a wide receiver or a corner win MVP and they’re some of the highest paid, most respected positions in the sport. So what chance does a player such as the lowly punter have? The punter who is consistently the lowest paid player amongst all starters across the entire NFL. And yet, just this past week we saw the importance of having an excellent punter when Johnny Hekker of the Los Angeles Rams put on a stellar performance by pinning each of his five punts within the opponents 10-yard line. The Chicago Bears already weak offence was put at an even greater disadvantage due to these dreadful starting positions and would only manage a single field goal all game.
Clearly there’s value in a good punter. Having someone who could consistently give the opponents significantly worse field position lowers their chances of scoring, and keeps the threat of the defense scoring a safety always on the board. With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves, what would have to happen for a punter to win MVP?
Chaos. Luck. And a defense that loves to score.
When Mark Moseley won MVP as a kicker in 1982, it wasn’t just because he posted a then-record 95.2% success rate on attempted field goals. In a shortened 8-game season, three of Washington’s seven wins came from late game-winning field goals by their kicker. This sort of clutch performance was seen as an asset that no doubt contributed to his victory.
In short, it was the storyline that won him the MVP. Voters saw a team that won nearly half of their games directly from the performance of their kicker, who happened to also break the record for field goal efficiency – although struggled with the extra point posting only an 84.2% success rate. Any punter hoping to claim the title of most valuable player would need the same combination of performance, luck, and a storyline around their kicks.
When Johnny Hekker managed to pin the Bears within the 10 yard line in each of his five punts with the whole country watching during Monday Night Football, it became the story of the game. The Bears failed to get anything going offensively, with their only touchdown coming from the defense. The one thing that could have made the whole storyline sweeter is if the Rams defense managed to put up some points of their own thanks to these generous field positions that Hekker gifted them with.
Any safety, pick six, or fumble recovered for a touchdown would surely come with the caveat of “this doesn’t happen without a punt like that!” If the game was closer than its 24-10 final score, then a defensive score off a punt would have been the clutch difference maker that Moseley’s field goals were seen as.
The truth is, MVP voters love flashiness and putting up points. That’s why quarterbacks and running backs always win, as they’re the ones most directly responsible for scoring. For a punter to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player, it may not be enough for them to just consistently pin their opponent within the 10 or even 5 yard line. Like how any MVP quarterback relies on their offensive line and receivers, an MVP punter would rely on a blitzing lockdown defense that can score safeties and rack up touchdowns off turnovers.
Imagine if you will, a team with a mediocre offense but an absolute beast of a defense as well as the greatest punter the world has ever seen. Every drive begins the same, the offense gets the ball, and after some failed attempts to drive down field they find themself stuck on fourth down.
On comes the punter.
Our future MVP then boots it down the field and manages to pin the opponent within their five yard line. The opponent’s offense takes the field with fear in their eyes. They have over 95 yards to march down field and know that they won’t even get close for a stifling defense awaits them. A defense that is more likely to strip the ball and score than it is to give up points on their own. The QB must act quick to avoid giving up a safety, but rushing the play will lead to an interception or costly fumble.
Our great punter has perfectly set up this terrifying defense to act… which is exactly why one of the defenders would win MVP.
In sports, people remember how a play ended and not the journey it took to get there. No one cares that Joe Carter didn’t reach base in any of his first four plate appearances during game 6 of the 1993 World Series, what matters is he hit a homerun to end the game. Our punter wouldn’t get as much praise for setting up the defense as the defense would get for executing the scoring play. Our journey of seeing a punter win MVP is hindered by the simple fact that punters cannot score points.
Correction: Punting can’t score points.
Punters can and have scored points. It happens a few times every season, most often on fake punts where a member of the specials teams group either runs the ball themselves or throws a pass for the deceptive score.
To snatch the MVP award from the offensive stars who hoard it, our punter must become the offense. They must be able to throw the ball like a quarterback, run it like a running back, catch or block when needed, and still be able to pin the opponents deep in their zone with a flawless punt when necessary. We need to secure the world’s first ever 5-tool punter.
If a punter were flawlessly talented at pinning their opponent within the 10-yard line, teams would have to adapt and try other strategies. The most obvious one would be attempting to blitz the kick, sending more defenders forward in an attempt to block the punt. The downside of this is it means less players are available downfield to make stops which opens up the defense to trickery.
Suddenly defenders rushing the punter see he isn’t punting the ball at all, and instead have to watch in horror as the future MVP instead tosses a perfect pass over the oncoming blitz to a wide open receiver who suddenly has a clear path to the endzone. Just like that, our punter is now capable of scoring – and opposing teams should be afraid.
Much of the difficulty found in defensive play calling within the NFL is figuring out if your opponent intends to run or pass on the next play. Now imagine if a third option – punting – was added to that mix as well. Do you rush the punter and risk a pass being thrown? Do you drop all your defenders deep and leave yourself susceptible to a first down run? Or do you play it safe and just watch helplessly as a perfect punt stops just short of your endzone, pinning the offense deep in their territory with the risk of a defensive score looming on the next drive.
It would be chaos, a nightmare for fans, coaches, and players on opposing teams. Seeing this man punt would become must-watch television. NFL Redzone would flip away from a scoring drive to show viewers live footage of the punting unit taking the field. For the first time ever, analysts on ESPN, NFL Network, and dive bars across the country would spend the week leading up to Sunday asking the question of how can anyone stop this punter?
Capable of scoring offensive touchdowns, setting up defensive touchdowns, and making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks who are more likely to be sacked for a safety than drive 95 yards downfield to score on their own. Our magical punter is the NFL’s first ever triple threat.
They are the MVP.
They are the Most Valuable Punter.