The CFL unveiled the 2019 division all-star list on Wednesday, featuring 54 players who were recognized as the best at their respective positions.
Jon Ryan was named the West Division’s all-star punter after posting a gaudy 48.8-yard gross average, first among the league’s full-time punters. The 13-year NFL veteran signed with his hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders in May after the club made him the CFL’s highest-paid punter.
The issue is that gross yardage may not be the best way to measure punting ability. Calgary Stampeders’ punter Rob Maver, for instance, believes it shouldn’t be factored in at all when assessing players at the position.
“I haven’t looked at that (statistic) once this year,” says Maver. “I think it’s a meaningless stat in today’s game.”
In a way, assessing punters based on how far they can kick is like judging quarterbacks based on how far they can throw. JaMarcus Russell was reportedly capable of tossing a football 70 yards from his knees, but that didn’t make him a good NFL pivot. Accuracy, decision-making, and leadership is what defines most great quarterbacks — not arm strength.
Instead, Maver believes punters should be assessed on where they place the football and how well opposing players are able to return each punt.
“I think that the true metrics in my eyes that define success are net punt, opponent return, and punts inside the ten-yard line,” says Maver.
Critics were also quick to point out that Ryan led the CFL with 12 punt singles. Unless a team is looking to break a tie late in the fourth quarter, kicking for a single is rarely the designed outcome of a punt. Teams typically want their punter to boot the ball out of bounds deep in enemy territory, often referred to as the “coffin corner.”
The league’s other punters combined for just 17 singles in 2019, six of which came from Richie Leone. Leone was a busy man in Ottawa this season, attempting a league-high 132 punts courtesy of an anemic Redblacks’ offence.
“When you put a ball in the end zone, which is usually not desired, you’re rewarded for doing that — sometimes in the case of 20 extra yards,” says Maver. “That really inflates (gross) averages.”
The ten-year CFL veteran would have cast his ballot differently than the majority of this year’s all-star voters.
“I would have voted for Justin Medlock for the West Division,” says Maver. “He was second or first in lowest opponent return, he was second in net (yardage), and I think first inside the ten (yard line). Not to take anything away from anybody else, but when I look at how I value the position and how I’ve strived to play it, those are the metrics that I value.”
The statistics Maver prioritizes — net punting, opponent return yards, and punts inside the ten-yard line — are all impacted by scheme. Punters who play for teams with quality special teams coordinators and strong cover units will always be at an advantage in these categories.
This might be one of the reasons voters look at gross yardage as an important metric when assessing punters — it is an isolated statistic, one decided solely by the punter based on his ability to boot the football as far as possible.
It may not be best to look at statistics in a vacuum, however. Football is considered the ultimate team sport for a reason.
“What stat isn’t dependent on scheme?” asks Maver. “Are you going to judge a quarterback by how many yards he throws for? Well, what kind of offence is he throwing in? Same for receivers. Are they the primary read for a lot of the plays? Or are they a secondary read?”
Every player on the field benefits (or struggles) based on the play of his teammates along with the schemes designed by his coaching staff. Punters are no different.
Moving forward, Maver would like to see all-star voters assess punters differently — specifically, he doesn’t believe gross punting yardage should play a factor in the voting process.
“I’m not trying to be negative or take anything away from anybody else,” says Maver. “I just value and view (punting) differently.”