- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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One question rises above all others when Chicago's Devin Hester returns a punt for a touchdown:
Why would anyone punt to the NFL's most dynamic return specialist?
The question arrives rhetorically, as if a giant dunce cap should descend upon anyone foolish enough to drop a punt within range of the prolific return man.
Thanks largely to Hester, punt-return touchdowns have risen over the past two seasons after leveling off in 2004 and 2005. Hester's five punt-return scores in 25 games have left victims longing for the days when coffin-corner punts buried opponents deep in their own territory.
Back then, punters sent low-trajectory kicks directly out of bounds and just short of the pylons marking the goal line, diminishing the possibility of a game-breaking return.
From 1978 to 1991, the league averaged 4.9 punt-return touchdowns over the first 10 weeks of each season. Teams have returned nine for touchdowns in 2007, consistent with 10-week averages (8.8) since 1992.
Expansion accounts for only some of the differential. The remainder seems to beg for a new approach, or perhaps even an old one. But coffin-corner tactics are showing few signs of life.
At least three factors preclude a revival:
1. The speed of the game
Players are faster than ever, leaving teams about 2.1 seconds to snap the ball and punt before pressure arrives. Most snappers need about 0.75 or 0.8 seconds to get the ball to the punter. That leaves 1.3 seconds for the punter to handle the snap, toss the ball, step forward and make contact.
"To be really accurate with a coffin-corner kick, you have to drop the ball lower, so it's not floating in the air before it hits the foot," said veteran special teams coach Steve Hoffman, who spent 16 seasons with Dallas before joining Atlanta (2006) and now Miami. "The problem is, when it comes off the foot low like that, you risk getting it blocked if there's pressure off the edges."
Former Oakland punter Jeff Gossett was among the fastest in memory at getting the ball out. He would rather strike the ball on the laces than spend precious time spinning it into alignment.
"I'll be offset a yard to the left of the center, which will cut down on the [rush] angle," Feagles said. "Then we abbreviate our steps where you don't get real far out to the right because of the big rushers."
Instead of rushing 10 men, teams will send rushers around the outside. Defenders anticipate which side the punter might favor given circumstances such as wind and which hash mark is in play. An effective rusher can force a punter to angle the ball to the middle, setting up a potential return.
"People don't realize how hard it is to kick the ball out of bounds," said Hoffman, who recruited Feagles at the University of Miami in the 1980s. "Say we're punting and the wind is blowing with you, across your left shoulder to your right a little bit. That would be the easiest way to punt."
The opposing special teams coach knows this, of course, so he designs a rush to force the punter in the other direction, Hoffman explained. Meanwhile, the wind moves the ball ever so slightly during the roughly 2-foot drop from hands to foot. A variance of even half an inch can produce unexpected results over long distances.
"By the time it goes 50 yards down the field and the wind has affected it, it might blow all the way to the middle of the field," Hoffman said, "and it goes right down the middle to Devin Hester."
The chance for a turnover
Hester has five punt-return touchdowns in 75 career returns. That means he fails to score a touchdown 93.3 percent of the time. Hester has also fumbled eight times on punt returns, another reason some teams are willing to take their chances.
"If you look at Hester, he's fumbled a few, he'll run backwards some," one scout said. "Dante Hall [of the St. Louis Rams] will give up some yards, too. The flip side is they may break it for 80."
The more pronounced talent differentials at the college level might convince coaches there to kick away from a superior return man more frequently, the scout said. NFL teams are more evenly matched, leading coaches to trust their coverage units with more confidence.
Coffin-corner kicks require another set of mechanics, including some that can interfere with a punter's conventional motion.
"Drop it too far in or out and you have to chase it with your leg," said Kansas City special teams coach Mike Priefer, who coached Feagles with the Giants. "That takes countless hours of practice. I can't tell you how hard Jeff worked even at age 38 on the fundamentals of the game."
A few inconsistent performances can doom less-established punters to the waiver wire. They are often better served sticking to the basics.
"Guys have found more efficient ways to put it down in there (kicks inside opponents' 20-yard line)," Seattle punter Ryan Plackemeier.
Pooch punters strike the ball as high as possible without letting it "turn over" at the top. The goal is to discourage the ball from catapulting forward into the end zone upon impact, but pooch punters can have a harder time controlling distance.
Former Australian-rules players such as former longtime San Diego punter Darren Bennett helped to popularize an approach allowing for greater consistency. Aussie-style punters drop the ball with the front pointing down, striking the ball with their instep. The ball rotates backward and end-over-end, much like it would on a kickoff. The approach seems to be gaining momentum.
"The coffin corner went out so long ago," said Feagles, who entered the league with New England in 1988. "The reason I still do it is because I feel better kicking the angles. I aim for the 10 and I can control where the ball goes out.
"The young players, they really have never been taught how to coffin corner."
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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