Sometimes, sports fans can be pretty harsh on their own team. Fans often have very high expectations and if the results on the field don't match those expectations, judgment against the perceived offender, whether a player, coach or GM, can be swift and cruel. A player can be sentenced to the doghouse over a small number of mistakes, while other plays where he did a solid job go unnoticed.
This season, Rams fans have been pretty critical of a certain player and recently I have begun to question whether this is truly deserved. No, I'm not talking about the team's QB, Matthew Stafford. I'm talking about Johnny Hekker.
The Bare Punting Stats
Over the past decade, Hekker has been one of the better punters in the NFL. In his first 9 seasons in the league, he averaged at least 45.6 yards per punt each year. A couple of years ago in 2019, Hekker had the 3rd best punting average in the NFL. This season has been much different. Hekker has a 43.7 yard punting average, which ranks 29th among punters who have attempted at least 10 punts. It is by far the lowest average of his career.
On its face, it might seem like Hekker is losing it and has had a terrible season. Fans have questioned whether the Rams made a mistake and should have kept Corey Bojorquez instead. The Rams ended the training camp punting competition by trading Bojorquez to the Packers and sticking with the veteran Hekker. Things aren't exactly as simple as they appear on the surface.
First, Hekker ranks 7th in the NFL in net punting average, at 42.3 net yards per punt. In comparison, Bojorquez has a 40.1 net average, which only ranks 18th in the NFL. In most cases, net average is the more important special teams stat than gross punting average. What is the point in outkicking the coverage and giving up a big return? Or booming a punt out of the back of the end zone, only to see the ball advanced 20 yards on the touchback?
A reason Hekker has a solid net average is that nearly half of his punts (49% to be exact) have been fair caught. Meanwhile, only 21% of Bojorquez's punts have been fair caught.
Secondly, Hekker has been excellent punting the ball inside the 20 this season. Ben Skowronek messed up a touchback opportunity in a game earlier this year. If it weren't for that play, Hekker would have zero touchbacks and 22 punts downed inside the 20. Even with the officially credited one touchback on his stat sheet this year, Hekker still only has a 2.1% touchback rate, much lower than his career 5.1% touchback rate.
If you take the ratio of TB to punts downed inside the 20 plus touchbacks, for Hekker it is 4.5%. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it really should be 0% if Skowronek had done his job better. Bojorquez has had 4 touchbacks this season and if we do the same calculation, his TB percentage is 19%. That isn't so good. I calculated the NFL wide rate, excluding Hekker, and it came out to 15.6%. So, Hekker this year is at an elite level in this category, while Bojorquez is below average.
PFF does not consider Hekker to be one of the worst punters in the league. Hekker ranks 10th out of 33 punters as graded by PFF. Bojorquez only ranks 16th out of 33. So, in the eyes of PFF, Hekker overall has had the better season compared to Bojorquez. In a recent game against the Vikings, Bojorquez shanked a punt attempt out of bounds, resulting in only a 24 yard net punt.
Hekker remains a threat to complete passes out of punt formation, which can be a valuable X factor. I imagine it not only influences fake punt plays, but it also can impact how opponents set up punt block attempts and their punt blocking assignments.
Another factor to consider is how reliable Hekker has been as the holder on FG attempts. This year, Matt Gay has one of the highest made FG percentages in the NFL at about 94%. For the Packers, Mason Crosby has made less than 73% of his FG attempts. From 30 to 49 yards, Crosby is 12 out of 20, a conversion rate of 60%. From the same range, Gay has made 95.5% of his attempts.
When Bojorquez was with the Bills, he was considered to be a poor holder for FGs. On several kicks, he failed to spin the ball, resulting in the laces pointing back towards the kicker. I wonder if this was one of the reasons the Bills didn't keep him, despite his good punting stats in 2020. In a recent game against the Vikings, Bojorquez nearly fumbled the snap on a FG, barely getting the ball down and placing it at an awkward angle for the kicker.
Do you really want to enter the playoffs with a FG holder who is unreliable and could mess up at any time? It might be an odd way of looking at it, but Hekker's holding ability might end up being more important than his punting in the playoffs. Which play is more likely to be the difference in winning and losing a game for the Rams, getting 5 more gross yards on a punt or the difference between making or missing a FG?
The Goal is the Super Bowl, not the Pro Bowl
Hekker might be having a down year compared to the high standard he set in previous seasons, but I don't think he's as bad as he's been made out to be. Hekker is still a positive contributor to the cause.
Considering that the Rams brought in competition last offseason, it is fair to speculate what the future holds for Hekker in a Rams jersey. There are salary cap considerations that go beyond just his own individual performance.
I still feel more confident having Hekker on the roster for this playoff push than I would be if the less experienced Bojorquez had replaced him. Hekker knows what it is like to perform in playoff games and in pressure situations. Especially with a young kicker, I bet Hekker can be a calming influence and brings intangibles to the table, almost like an assistant special teams coach. He has the right personality to keep the other guys loose, but also get them focused. It might be analogous to a baseball team, how sometimes a veteran catcher manages certain pitchers well and is trusted to start when it is their turn in the rotation, even though he might not be the greatest hitter.
Maybe Hekker is past his prime. Maybe this is his last ride with the Rams. Regardless, I consider Hekker to be one of the more underappreciated Rams on the team this season and I hope that he can make a key play for the Rams in the playoffs, whether it is on a punt, a kick or by throwing the ball.