I've been waiting for a good opportunity to write this article for a while. Recently, Carl Bialik at the WSJ asked me to take a look at some punting stats for a post on the 'Golden Age of Punting.' For the last few years, Shane Lechler has been lauded for his super-human punting ability. For three of the last six years he's led the league in total punting yards, and for five of the last seven years he's lead the league in yards per punt. He'll be going to his fourth pro-bowl in a few weeks.
But, there's a problem with all those gaudy stats. Lechler has the benefit of playing for the Oakland Raiders, who for the last few seasons have fielded a terrible offense. Lechler, more than most other punters, gets to punt from deep in his own territory where the chance of a touchback doesn't shorten punts. We can call this the JaMarcus Effect.
In this post, I'll look at where Lechler's average field position is compared to the rest of the league. We'll see that this has a big effect on punt distances. But we'll also see that I'm wrong about Lechler in the end. Despite this unfair advantage, he's still the NFL's best.
In the NFL this year, the average field position for punts has been a team's own 35.2 yard line. Oakland, however, sports an average of their own 31.2-yard line, the deepest of all 32 teams. Lechler's net punt average is top in the league at 43.6 yds/punt. But for all teams, the correlation between average punt field position and average net punt distance is -0.45, meaning the deeper your field position the longer the punt. It's no wonder Lechler tops the league most years. Below is a graph of expected net punt distance by field position to illustrate what I mean.
Accounting for the JaMarcus Effect, Lechler is still the best. Using Expected Points Added (EPA) and Win Probability Added (WPA) we can compare the expected value of a punter's kicks with the actual values. In other words, if we know how many Expected Points each of Lechler's punts should gain, and he exceeds that, then we can say he's good. We can compare all punters this way, and see who really had the best season. WPA can tell us which punter really made the biggest contribution to his team when it mattered most.
I'm going to look at average EPA per punt and total season WPA. I think a 'per punt' stat is most useful because obviously some punters are going to have more opportunities than others. But for WPA, which measures impact on a game, I think a 'total' stat is more appropriate.
As it turns out, Shane Lechler is number one in both average EPA and total WPA. Below is a table of all 32 teams and their punting stats--Average EPA, total WPA, average field position for punts, and average net punt distance.
I broke them out by team rather than punter because it's about 1,000 times easier with my data set. But this highlights an important point. We're really looking at total team punting performance, not just the individual kicker. (Also, if someone is burning to know the stats for specific guy in the cases where a team changed punters mid-season, let me know. I'll generate the numbers.)
Congratulations Mr. Lechler, you just made the Advanced NFL Stats All-WPA team! (Psst. Your agent can reach me at 703-555-...)
|Punter||EPA Avg||WPA Sum||Avg YL (own)||Avg Net|