Eric is a former football player, former youth football coach, and lifelong student of the game.
It’s the NFL playoffs, your team is down by two points with a minute left, but they have the ball and they’re driving. They work the clock and fight their way downfield, and with seconds left in the game they line up for a 25-yard field goal for the win. Everyone in your living room is on their feet as the ball is snapped, but something goes horribly wrong.
The football skitters pathetically along the turf, the kicker balks, and the holder panics. With the opposing defense closing in to put an end to the broken play and squash your hopes until next season, the holder regains his composure, snatches up the football, and bolts around the end. Miraculously, he ends up in the clear with nobody between him and the end zone!
Your living room erupts with cheers until you realize in horror that the man carrying the ball is the punter. Your home and the stadium fall silent as the defense runs him down, takes the ball from him, and gives him both a wedgie and a wet willie before crushing him into the turf.
Hours later, as you sit in your darkened living room staring at the wall amid a mess of stale snack chips and empty cans, you can’t help but wonder, why do punters hold for field goals?
I mean, punters are great at punting, but anyone can hold for a field goal. Don’t you want someone back there who can do something with the ball if the play falls apart? How about a backup quarterback, or a speedy wide receiver? At least give your team a chance if something goes wrong.
Some teams do have backup quarterbacks hold for field goals for that very reason, but in the NFL the punter is almost always a better choice.
Here are five reasons why:
1. NFL Rosters Are Limited
Teams can carry 53 players, plus a 10-man practice squad. That’s a total of 63 potential players, but only 46 are allowed to dress for a game. This means teams must make some tough decisions regarding how many of each position player they want to trot out there on Sunday.
Most teams only dress two quarterbacks for each game. That's a starter who gets most of the reps during the week, and a backup who had better be paying attention. Neither of those guys has a lot of time to mess around with special teams.
The same can be said of wide receivers, tight ends, and defensive backs. They may have good hands, but they don’t have a lot of time at their disposal.
Sure you could dress a third quarterback, but the punter is already dressing for the game and doesn’t need to be so involved in the game plan. This brings us to point number two:
2. Punters Don’t Have a Lot to Do
During the week, while the rest of the team is practicing and working on strategy, kickers and punters are, of course, practicing kicking and punting. But they can’t kick and punt for the entire practice, and many closely monitor their number of kicks each day sort of like a baseball pitcher keeps track of the number of pitches he throws.
Punters need to work with the special teams group at certain points during the week and spend some time in the film, but otherwise, the punter and kicker are two guys who have a whole lot of time to work together.
Holding for field goals and extra points is an important job, and the more a kicker can work with the same holder the better. No position player has as much time to spend with the kicker as the punter does.
3. Punters Have Good Hands
You might think the best player to catch a long snap and make sure it gets safely down for the kick would be a wide receiver or tight end, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that doesn’t mean the punter is a bad choice.
Half the punter’s job is catching the snap, and I’d bet you’ve seen receivers drop passes way more often than you’ve seen punters drop long snaps. You won’t make it to the NFL as a punter if you can’t catch the ball. Punters have good hands, and for that reason alone they are a good choice to have back there as a holder.
4. Punters Work Well Under Pressure
Punting a football is easy. Punting a football with 300-pound monsters flying in to knock your block off is a little harrowing. It takes nerves of steel for a punter to hang in there in such a vulnerable position, knowing he can be crushed at any moment.
This is exactly the kind of coolness you want in your holder. While injuries to a holder are rare, and the holder is protected from roughing the same as the kicker, they are still in a defenseless position.
If you need somebody to calmly catch a snap, spin the ball perfectly and place it on the turf while eleven large, angry men are trying to mangle them, the punter is your guy.
5. Punters Are Good Athletes
Seriously. We joke about punters and kickers as being kind of wimpy, and that’s unfair. These guys know they might have to make a tackle or take on a blocker on any play, and they prepare.
The average NFL punter is bigger, stronger, and faster than most people you know in the real world. They don’t look quite so good compared to the extreme talent in the NFL, but they’re not totally helpless out there. Many great plays are made every week by punters who show some guts in the clutch.
Punters also know what to do when a play breaks down. Most punts go off without a hitch, but it only takes one bad or mishandled snap or missed block and they are running for their lives back there.
What About the Long Snapper?
You may have noticed that most teams have a guy on their roster who plays a position called long snapper. All he does is (you guessed it) long snaps for punts and kicks. He plays no other position, so why would a team waste a roster spot on this guy when the center should be able to handle this duty?
There are a few reasons, first and foremost being that by hiring a dedicated long snapper you’re creating a 3-player battery that can practice together every day until field goals and extra points are down to second nature. The center probably could serve as a decent long snapper in most cases, but by putting in a fresh man hired specifically for his ability to snap the ball mistakes due to fatigue are less likely to occur.
Of course, the downside is losing a roster spot, but when you consider all of the games that come down to two points or less it's easy to see why a long snapper is worth it.
The Importance of Special Teams
So far this article has only discussed NFL football, but what about college? College football teams do not have the tight roster restrictions we see in the NFL. During the regular season, they often have a hundred or more players on the team. Most conferences limit the traveling roster to 70-75 players, but that still leaves a lot of room. So, we will see position players holding for field goals a little more commonly in college ball.
In the NFL the kicker, punter, and long snapper work together on one of the toughest parts of the football game. Even though having the punter as a holder might mean disaster if anything goes wrong with the kick, the way a special teams coach handles these three players can make it less likely disaster will occur to begin with.
So, next time your team lines up for the game-winning field goal and your buddies start to get a little anxious, assure them that the punter and long snapper have everything under control, and the kick is as good as automatic.