Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
The punt: It’s not just for losing anymore
The St. Louis Rams beat the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, which was a major surprise even with the Seahawks’ fitful struggles this season. Perhaps the bigger surprise was that the Rams came away with a win despite a predictably middling performance from both its offensive and defensive units. Instead, it was the punt teams that seized glory for St. Louis, with the Rams executing both a fake punt and a fake punt return to perfection.
The punt is one of the most maligned plays in football because it is an embarrassing oddity in sports: A play designed specifically for giving up. Baseball’s intentional walk at least allows a team to concede an at-bat before the fight even begins. But a punt is a post-hoc concession of offensive impotence, so it always reeks of the failure that immediately preceded it. (I’m talking about the present-day game. Decades ago, before today’s offense-heavy era, when field position was more important, a punt was likewise a more important strategic tool.) Punts also stink because even when they result in an exciting return, you have to hold your breath for the inevitable holding or block-in-the-back foul that will erase the whole thing.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher used society’s natural disdain for the punt to his advantage this week. Where others saw a routine special teams play, he saw a space for creativity. His first mischievous stroke came as the Seahawks punted the ball to St. Louis halfway through the second quarter. The Rams set up blocking on their left side around Tavon Austin, their usual return man. Meanwhile, receiver Stedman Bailey—who hadn’t returned a punt in his life—quietly ran down the right side, which is where the Rams actually expected the ball to go. (As Bailey would explain after the game, Rams special teams coach John Fassel “noticed that when [Seattle’s] punter tried to sky it, to pin us deep, the punt always ended up in pretty much the same spot.”)
Once the punt was away, Seattle’s blockers zeroed in on Austin, who sold the play by lining up to catch the ball—he even fell on his ass for dramatic effect. Meanwhile, the ball sailed quietly into the arms of Bailey on the other side of the field, who caught the punt over his shoulder, like a pass, to further camouflage his intent. The misdirection was so effective that even Fox’s cameraman was confused, and by the time Seattle knew what was going on, Bailey was well on his way to six points. Watching Pete Carroll plead to the officials that Austin had signaled for a fair catch (he hadn’t) was the cherry on this sundae.
The deceptive punt return put St. Louis up 21-3. The Seattle offense woke up in the second half, and as the fourth quarter wound down, the Rams were clinging to a two-point lead. But wily Jeff Fisher was not done having fun with punts. With about three minutes remaining, St. Louis lined up on fourth-and-3 to kick the ball back to Seattle, who in all likelihood would have proceeded to unleash a game-winning drive. Instead, punter Johnny Hekker tossed the ball to Benny Cunningham, picking up a first down that allowed St. Louis to run down the clock.
I’m hard-pressed to think of the last time a team exhibited this much punt-related creativity in a single game, and to such great effect. Block & Tackle tips its hat to Fisher and Fassel, who saw potential in the lowly punt when nobody else did—at least, nobody on the Seattle sideline.
Your Sunday Night Football recap
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth were excited to see Peyton Manning break the all-time touchdown pass record. It would give them a chance to sing paeans both to Manning and to previous record-holder Brett Favre, the Symbol Of All That Is Right With Football According To White Men Over 50. Michaels was all, “Yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh,” and Collinsworth was like, “Fuh fuh fuh fuh fuh.”
Then Manning broke the record, and Colin Kaepernick watched a horse.
After that, the game was a blowout, so everybody got drunk on Peyton Manning Juice, even Michele Tafoya.