LANDRY: Directional punting analytics beginning to gain traction

It might, though, should it prove to be as helpful as some coaches and punters feel it can be.

In a league where returners are running wild and special teams coordinators barely have time to celebrate the accomplishment of their guy before the other team’s guy returns the favour, any edge will do.

If the CFL’s Senior Director of Game Information and Statistics is correct, it’s a stat that will prove to be important moving forward.

“Inside and outside the numbers is one of those special teams analytics that does have significance, I think,” said Steve Daniel, who’s in his 14th year as the league’s statistical curator.

Punters and special teams coordinators care where a punt lands these days, increasingly so. If the returner is forced to field the ball on the numbers – or even better, outside of them – that’s good. Inside the numbers? That’s bad.

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS KICKER JUSTIN MEDLOCK COMES TO THE SIDELINE FOLLOWING A SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY AGAINST THE TORONTO ARGONAUTS (SHANNON VIZNIOWSKI/CFL.CA)

We’ve heard, over the last few years, that directional punting was becoming more and more important in the CFL and it turns out that it’s a very big deal to coaches and kickers. Daniel knows this to be true, as over the last five or six years he’s noticed an increased appetite for more and more analytics, especially from those who design schemes to bottle up opposing returners while springing their own loose.

“They talk to me more than almost any other set of coaches, on a regular basis,” Daniel said of special teams coaches across the league. “This inside and outside the numbers, for punting, came from one or two of those conversations.”

So far this season, in numbers tracked by Daniel and his associate, Jeff Krever, a total of 450 punts have been launched. Fifty-four per cent of them have landed inside the numbers. Of those inside-the-numbers punts, four have been hiked back for touchdowns. The average return on those punts has been an even 13 yards, while punts landing numbers-out have yielded an average of 10.6 yards on returns, with two touchdowns.

At first blush, you might say “what’s the big deal? Two-and-a-half yards?” The big deal is, as Daniel said: “That adds up.”

At least two accomplished punters and one of the league’s most highly-regarded special teams coordinators agree with that assessment.

“That’s really telling as to how important it is to kick the ball in a certain manner,” said Calgary’s Rob Maver, apprised of stats that will be further fleshed out in this column.

“That’s definitely a miss for me,” said Winnipeg’s Justin Medlock, asked if there’s ever a time he actually wants to punt the ball inside the numbers. “I’m never big on that.”

“When the ball gets in the middle of the field, even inside the numbers to the hash – and certainly, from hash to hash – it’s more dangerous,” said Hamilton Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Reinebold, one of the coaches who had been asking for more data on punt placement.

For those three, tracking where a punt lands is critical information as they endeavour to clamp down on the CFL’s super-returners in 2019.

THE PUNTERS: FOR MAVER AND MEDLOCK, TARGETING IS KING

Last week, during the Calgary Stampeders’ loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Maver saw two of his kicks returned for touchdowns by Bombers newcomer Janarion Grant.

He was ticked off.

“Oh, supremely,” the 10th-year Stampeder punter said, shouldering the blame for Grant’s 76- and 83-yard romps for majors.

“The first one was a complete miss hit on my part,” Maver said. “The second one was a field punt into a little bit of a breeze and I didn’t get through it enough to push it all the way out there.”

It was a weird kind of night, statistically speaking. In one evening, the Stampeders gave up more punt return yards than they had in the previous seven games combined, primarily – but not entirely – because of the punts that Maver, a two-time league-wide all-star, would like to have back.

On the other sideline, Medlock was having another fine night of target punting, adding to his league-best numbers in the category. On the season, the veteran kicker has hit the numbers or outside of them on 35 punts, while 20 have landed inside the numbers.

It’s a category in which he is glad to be the leader.

“We really harp on trying to get the ball outside the numbers,” Medlock said. “Big emphasis on that, especially with all these good returners this year.”

CALGARY STAMPEDERS PUNTER ROB MAVER SENDS THE BALL AWAY (LARRY MACDOUGAL/CFL.CA)

Both Maver and Medlock can get targeting numbers from the CFL, but they also do their own homework. Medlock keeps his own paperwork on his kicking game, certain that the information he compiles is helpful to the rest of the players on Winnipeg’s cover teams. “I chart every punt,” the 2016 all-star said.

“I was 22 for 23 going one way,” Medlock said of landing punts on the numbers or outside of them. “and I was 57 per cent going the other direction.”

He declined to say which side was where his nearly-perfect record was forged, and which side needs work, choosing not to provide his opponents with that particular nugget.

He did, though, offer up a telling statement on the importance of getting footballs to the sideline; “There’s not many times where I’m really not trying to hit it outside the numbers,” he said. “It is really important.”

With Medlock dropping in punts that put most returners in a phone booth, the Blue Bombers head into Week 10 leading the CFL in lowest average yardage given up, at 8.3. Meantime, their own return game comes in at 13.1 yards per. So they are gaining almost five yards of field position on every exchange, basically.

“It’s something that, in Calgary, we’re definitely aware of,” said Maver of the stat that tells us the average return fielded from the numbers-out is shorter than those from inside the numbers by more than 2.5 yards.

“If you take three yards off any other play you’d see how big of an impact it can have,” he said.

Privy to the numbers that the CFL is providing on target punting, Maver also gets statistical back-up within the Stampeders’ organization.

“Mark Kilam and his assistant, Keenan MacDougall, they track all these things and they present us (Maver and placekicker Rene Paredes) with our ‘hit’ charts and let us know how we’re hitting.”

For Maver, there’s never a time when he actually wants to punt the ball between the numbers.

“I’m always trying to hit the ball out of bounds,” he said of trying to ensure a returner can’t even attempt a return inside the 20-yard line.

Between the twenties, he still wants to avoid the area between the numbers. Unpredictable winds, a rushed kick and even inexplicable mis-hits happen, however.

“I’m always trying to hit the best-placed ball that I can but sometimes the wind and other elements make it more difficult. So I know that if I were to be too aggressive with placement, that can get you into trouble.”

For Medlock, the current king of placement punting, the narrow strip of field down the rail is so enticing. He’ll go after it every time.

“I’m pretty aggressive and I trust it,” he said. “If I hit it out of bounds, I hit it out of bounds. I just hit it too good. But I’m not gonna fear the sideline.”

Known for his big field goal leg, Medlock isn’t trying to mimic that power on punts. A longer punt is harder to place and gives the returner too much comfort back there, he figures.

“Nowadays, if you’re hitting a 65-yard ball down the alley, that’s gonna set up a punt returner in a really good spot. That’s what they want. They want a big ball. They want some space.”

“A 45-yard ball outside the numbers, they can’t set up the return as much. It gets a little cloudy in there.”

2019 PUNTING LEADERS

RANK NAME TEAM GP PUNTS YARDS AVG LG S
1 Richie Leone OTT 8 55 2,768 50.3 75 5
2 Justin Medlock WPG 8 55 2,461 44.7 71 1
3 Jon Ryan SSK 8 47 2,344 49.9 77 5
4 Rob Maver CGY 8 49 2,166 44.2 64 2
5 Lirim Hajrullahu HAM 8 50 2,165 43.3 54 0
6 Zack Medeiros TOR 6 49 2,029 41.4 54 1
7 Hugh O’Neill EDM 7 41 1,898 46.3 70 0
8 Boris Bede MTL 7 42 1,873 44.6 55 0
9 Josh Bartel BC 4 24 1,021 42.5 50 0
10 Sergio Castillo BC 8 20 821 41.0 52 0

Both Medlock and Maver agree that there are varying approaches to punting and they realize that what they strive for might not be what some other punters are trying to accomplish.

“You look at Richie,” Maver said of Ottawa’s Richie Leone, who leads the CFL with a 50.3-yard average. He does a great job of placing really, really big punts and hanging them up.”

“Sometimes when I try and hit the really big ball, it won’t carry as well as his does. So I know that my strengths lie within placing the ball in a more coverable range, around that 43- to 46-yard mark.”

Leone, by the way, has landed punts inside the numbers 30 times this season, with 25 coming down in the numbers-out area. Ottawa ranks sixth in the CFL in average return given up, at 12.2 yards.

Another big boomer, Saskatchewan’s Jon Ryan, is just behind Leone in average, at 49.9 yards. However, his punts have landed numbers-out only 14 times this season, while 34 have landed in between. In a year when CFL punt returns are at an all-time average high of 11.8 yards, Saskatchewan is giving up 18.3 yards per.

THE SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR: REINEBOLD ALWAYS LOOKING FOR AN ADVANTAGE

Hamilton Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Reinebold sees it simple terms, really. Landing punts numbers-out gives your cover team a 13th man.

“You gain another defender when the ball is kicked between the numbers and the sideline,” he said.

“Because the sideline is maybe the only guy that’s never missed a tackle in the history of football.”

Now, more than ever, Reinebold is wedded to the notion of squeezing punt returners to the side, what with the explosion of talent that has pushed the CFL into frenzied territory when it comes to big returns.

Did he see this coming? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What we do know is that, last winter, Reinebold asked his kicker, Lirim Hajrullahu, to practice and perfect his art of targeting the sidelines on punts.

And Hajrullahu has delivered, standing second only to Medlock on punts landed numbers-out, with 28 (22 inside). Hamilton’s allowed punt return average comes in at 9.4 so far in 2019, good for second behind Winnipeg.

“I’m really proud of Lirim, how he’s grown at improving his directional punting,” said Reinebold.

OTTAWA REDBLACKS PUNTER RICHIE LEONE KICKS THE BALL AWAY (PATRICK DOYLE/CFL.CA)

Reinebold is one of those coaches that statistician Steve Daniel alluded to; always looking for more data so he can proactively adjust his thinking, his scheming. Punt placement was an area where Reinebold felt he could use more information. Some other special teams coaches thought so too.

“We were trying to illustrate to our players why it’s so important,” Reinebold said.

Reinebold’s history with the CFL goes back decades and he has noticed the change in philosophies, schemes and the way certain aspects of the game are executed. More than that, really, he’s tried to stay on top of any new wave he sees coming.

“The game has changed,” he said, invoking memories of punters like Lui Passaglia and Hank Ilesic (Thunderfoot, they called him). Kickers back then were just trying to belt it high and long and, as Reinebold notes, special teams were a bit of an afterthought. Often the duties of coordinating them fell to an assistant who already had plenty to do in another area. “There’s more sophistication in the game,” he said.

Which means every yard counts, every week, against every team. Reinebold wants an edge wherever he can find it and that’s why he took steps to ensure his punter would most often land his kicks as close to the sidelines as possible.

“If you do see it in the middle of the field, typically it’s not where we want it to be,” he said.

LIKE NEVER BEFORE: RETURNERS AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE

For Reinebold, this is an awe-inspiring time in the CFL.

“I cannot remember a time when there have been this many explosive returners in the game at the same time,” he said. “We’ve always had great players. There’s always been the Henry Williamses and the Pinball Clemons. But I don’t know if there’s ever been as many as there are spread out around this league.”

There have been 49 ‘big play’ kick returns (30 yards or more on punts, 40 or more on kick-offs, 30 or more on missed field goals) so far this season. That’s a 62 per cent increase from 2018. Twenty-eight of those big plays have been punt returns, up from 18 at the same point a year ago.

No wonder special teams coaches are looking for any margin of advantage they can find in stopping opposing returners from blasting off, undoubtedly losing sleep along the way.

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS PUNTER JON RYAN STANDS WITH HIS TEAMMATES FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM (ARTHUR WARD/CFL.CA)

Reinebold, though, sees it as nothing but positive for the CFL and its fans, what with the NFL trending way from the return game.

“I really think it’s one of the things that separates us from the game down south,” said Reinebold. “Today, in the National Football League, the kicking game is being de-emphasized because of rule changes.”

“I think if you ask the fans, the return game is one of the places where our league is so much more fun to watch. And I hope we continue to do that.”

He drops an anecdote:

“I had somebody hit me on Twitter this week who had seen a couple of highlights from the games with the big returns and they said ‘this gives me a reason to watch CFL football.’ And he had not watched CFL football at all. He was actually in Europe. I think we need to celebrate that a little bit more because it is such a big part of our game, such a unique thing in our game and such an exciting part of our game,” said Reinebold.

Reinebold, of course, is enjoying this surge in return yards, what with guys like Brandon Banks (two missed field goal returns for touchdowns), Will Likely (a kickoff return for a major) and Frankie Williams (a touchdown on both a punt and kick-off return) turbocharging Hamilton’s special teams.

On the other side of the ledger, only two teams have not allowed a kick return touchdown of any kind this season and the Ticats are one of them (Ottawa is the other).

So what’s Reinebold’s secret? He laughed at that question. “Good players,” he said. That helps, sure. Poring over even more helpful data is a good thing too.

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