Now that NFL rosters have taken shape and we are less than a week away from real football, the question on most every fan’s mind is “How good is our punter?”
Or maybe that’s just me.
Typically punters are an afterthought; someone who is needed when the offense fails. Even in modern parlance, “punting” is often an idiom for quitting. Forgotten, overlooked, under-appreciated, the NFL punter is destined for obscurity.
Or maybe not. I’ve been intrigued by the recent emphasis on punters in the draft lately. In the 2017 draft, there were 3 punters taken and in 2018 that number increased to 4, including the Texas Bowl MVP. That is the most punters selected in a two year span since 1987(1).
Maybe that is random noise or maybe the NFL is starting to change their view of punters. Either way it begs the question of just how much can a good punter help a team?
OAKLAND — A 45-year-old kicker, a record-breaking play and a win on the road in front of friends and family. Just another day at the office for Hamilton High and Butte College alumnus Rigoberto Sanchez.
Sanchez, 24, midway through his second NFL season with the Indianapolis Colts as the team’s punter, holder and kickoff man, was relatively inconspicuous in a 42-28 win over the Raiders at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum on Sunday. On special teams, that is usually a good thing.
With the Raiders’ defense offering little resistance, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck completed his first 10 passes of the game and helped the Colts score 21 fourth-quarter points. The Colts converted 9 of 13 third downs for the game and as a result, only needed the punting services of Sanchez once. He booted it for 46 yards, while also recording touchbacks on 7 of 8 kickoffs.
However, the most important role Sanchez played on Sunday was holding for Vinatieri, who passed Morten Andersen to become the NFL’s all-time points leader with 2,550. He passed the mark by drilling a 25-yard field goal with 29 seconds remaining in the first half. As holder, Sanchez had a hand in that history, quite literally, and was the first person to congratulate him on the field.
While Vinatieri will get much of the credit for the record, and rightfully so, a small share of it must go to Sanchez and long-snapper Luke Rhodes. Sanchez, who was both a placekicker and punter for much of his time at Butte College and later, the University of Hawaii, didn’t have any holding experience prior to the NFL. To go from a novice to holding for one of the best kickers in league history, was a challenge that Sanchez embraced.
“No question, he is the best kicker in the NFL,” Sanchez said in a phone interview Thursday. “But I try not to put it in that perspective, to think about who I’m holding for. I just try to think, catch the ball, put the ball in the right spot, get the right lean.”
As a rookie in 2017, Sanchez found himself in a position battle with veteran Jeff Locke for the team’s starting punter spot left vacant by the retired Pat McAfee. Sanchez, a former center midfielder on Hamilton’s boys soccer team, appeared to have the superior leg. But he also needed to learn how to hold for Vinatieri.
He and Rhodes worked together at practice daily, so Sanchez could learn how to spin the ball correctly to the laces side and get a feel for catching snaps from Rhodes. Even after practice, Sanchez returned home and asked his fiancee, Cynthia Ramirez, to throw him footballs and get him additional repetitions.
“(Adam) was really patient with us, with Luke and I, in the beginning of last year,” Sanchez said. “He believed in us, he gave us the benefit of the doubt, and we work for him, and I think we work for the whole team.”
After he beat out Locke for the starting job as a rookie, Sanchez emerged as one of the league’s brightest young punters, and it has carried over into his second year. He ranks 10th in distance (46.0 yards), 3rd in net distance (43.1) and has allowed the 2nd fewest return yards per punt (5.0).
Like many kickers and punters, Sanchez played soccer growing up, and he often dreamed of playing the sport beyond Hamilton High. He began playing football in his sophomore year of high school. One of his coaches, Abel Hernandez, noticed his kicking ability and told him early on that he had the potential to go somewhere with it. Sanchez filed that thought away in the back of his mind.
As he was completing his senior year of high school in 2013, Sanchez was faced with the decision to attend Santa Rosa Junior College and play soccer, or stay closer to home and play football at Butte College. He chose home.
“It was a hard transition for me, but I mean it all played out perfectly, so I’m happy to be here,” Sanchez said.
Though his family has traveled to see some of his pro games, Sunday’s contest in Oakland was the closest to home Sanchez has ever played since joining the Colts.
Along with New York Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas, who grew up in nearby Orland and also worked with Hernandez, Sanchez planned on hosting a football camp for youths last offseason. But he first had to take care of finishing his degree at Hawaii, and had to put the idea on hold.
He still wants to put together a camp at some point in the future. As a someone from a city of less than 2,000 residents, Sanchez hopes to inspire other small-town kids to chase their big dreams.
“I talked to Aldrick too about this — growing up you want to have someone there, you always want to meet that professional athlete,” Sanchez said, “and we never really had that. We never really got to be around them because we’re obviously from small towns. The good thing is that we’re here, and now we’re able to do that for other kids.”
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) – This is a positive Colts column. Maybe you don’t want to read a positive Colts column at this point, especially at the end of a week when the Colts got shut out, T.Y. Hilton trashed the offensive line and then may or may not have apologized to them personally and then
Robert Mathis got charged with an OWI.
Maybe you don’t want to hear anything good about a franchise that is on pace to set the kinds of records for ineptitude you don’t want to set.
But here it is, a positive column, a column about a guy who is quietly having a terrific season for the otherwise horrific Indianapolis Colts.
He hasn’t made anybody forget about Pat McAfee – how can we ever forget Pat? – but he has come from nowhere to establish himself as one of the NFL’s best punters in this, his rookie year. He is also kicking off beautifully, and he’s learned to become a holder on field goals and extra points, something he never did before arriving in Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent from the University of Hawaii.
When training camp started, it was widely assumed that Jeff Locke, a free-agent addition from Minnesota, would be the man, and when Sanchez’ first preseason punt went nowhere, we figured it was Locke’s job to lose. We were wrong, so wrong. It was Sanchez’ job to win, and he won it with his consistency, his length and, most of all, his directional punting ability.
The numbers are impressive. Sanchez is fourth in the league in net yards punting. He is tied for first on punts inside the 20 yard line. He is first in forcing fair catches. He is fifth in yards per punt return. Currently, his net punting yards stands at 45.1 yards per punt; McAfee’s best ever came in 2014, when he averaged 42.8 On kickoffs, he’s done whatever special teams coach Tom McMahon has wanted him to do, either knocking it out of the back of the end zone, or popping it up, either to the left or to the right, just around the 1-yard line.
It is a harsh commentary on the state of the team that when Chuck Pagano was asked about his offense Monday, he changed gears and made sure to mention what a great year Sanchez is having. Come Wednesday, he was downright chatty about Sanchez, no doubt relieved at not having to discuss all the other issues that currently plague his team on the field and off.
“(Special teams coach) Tom (McMahon) does a great job unearthing these guys,’’ Pagano said. “He worked this kid out, evaluated him and from day one, he said this guy has a chance to be a Pro Bowler…and he was exactly right. He’s extremely mature and a great pro who spends countless time on task, working on his craft…’’
At this point you’re no doubt thinking, “Wow, we’re reduced to writing about what a great job the punter is doing.’’ And you wouldn’t be wrong. This recalls the day of Chris Gardocki and Rohn Stark and others back when the Colts specialists were far and away their biggest, and only, bright spots.
But, well, he’s having a great year, and he looks like the next in line of very fine Colts punters, going back years and then most recently, Hunter Smith and McAfee.
When I walked over to Sanchez to do an interview Wednesday, he was watching tape of the Cincinnati Bengals’ return men, looking for any little edge he could get in Sunday’s game.
“What I look at is how they catch the ball, and I also try to learn off other specialists out there, how they drop the ball (during a punt), little techniques that can help me,’’ Sanchez said. “These guys have been pros longer than I have, so I study them.’’
Sanchez, a rare bird in the NFL by virtue of his Mexican-American heritage, started out the way so many kickers do: As a soccer player. That was his favorite sport – and in some ways, still is – until his sophomore year in high school in California, when the local high school kicking coach noticed his leg talent and talked him into trying out for the team. The rest, as they say, is history. He kicked in high school, kicked two years at Butte College in California, then two years at Hawaii.