So, it feels like the last few days have been a never-ending barrage of ugly stories about the ugly Cowboys loss to the Falcons. The coaching staff is inept. Chaz Green was historically bad. The defense is putrid without Sean Lee. So, I’m here today to provide a light in the dark, an oasis in the desert, a respite from the tempest.
Jason Garrett has rightly been roasted for the poor coaching performance Sunday. But he also deserves credit for reaching into his bag of tricks for a potential game-changing fake punt. Only a questionable offensive interference penalty on Brice Butler prevented the team pulling off a well-executed 16-yard, first-down pass from punt formation. Had the play been successful Dallas would have enjoyed a first down at the Falcons’ 21-yard line with a 7-3 lead. Instead they ended up punting after the penalty yards were assessed.
It was a good play call at that time of the game and at that field position. And it was a good example of the team utilizing the athletic abilities of the punter, Chris Jones.
Jones is quietly having one of the best seasons among all Cowboys’ players. His punting has been phenomenal throughout the season. Punters have historically been hard to grade because there’s no one stat that really measures their performance well. Average punt distance isn’t particularly useful because it doesn’t account for return yardage. Net punt distance (including return yards) doesn’t account for touchbacks or poor coverage, so it can also be misleading.
A long punt that results in a touchback isn’t as effective as a shorter punt that leaves the opponent starting at their own 10. Probably the best way to measure a punter’s effectiveness is to combine the distance of a punt with the resulting starting position after the return. Let’s look at a chart of Jones’ season to date:
The chart shows the distance each Jones punt traveled and where the opponent started the following drive. I’ve color-coded based on the following:
Punts in red are excellent because they both traveled a long distance and trapped an opponent inside the 20. Punts in blue are also excellent, as they trapped an opponent inside the 15. Punts in pink (or coral or whatever color that is) are also good because they traveled more than 45 yards. Punts in green are not so good because they’re relatively short but did not trap an opponent deep inside their own territory. Punts in white are poor because they’re either very short while not inside the 20 or they resulted in a touchback.
The chart shows Jones’ punts grade excellent exactly half the time (17 out of 34):
Jones has poor results about once every 12 times he kicks. In fact, it’s so rare that every time he doesn’t have a good punt it’s stunning. His three poor kicks:
- Punting from the Denver 39-yard line he cleanly kicked into the end zone.
- Against Arizona punting from his own 27 he kicked only 29 yards; by far his worst kick on the season.
- Punting from the Atlanta 42 he kicked into the end zone. Xavier Woods (I believe) had a potential play on the ball but a Falcons blocker shielded him from any real opportunity.
Otherwise the seven-year veteran from Carson Newman has been nails. Jones punting is so accurate return men have practically no hope of any return opportunities. Here’s a chart of every punt return against the Cowboys this season:
The chart does not show the two touchbacks. The one 20-yard return came against Denver. The Rams managed to net 20 yards in returns on three punts and the 49ers returned a Jones punt 10 yards (but promptly fumbled, giving the Cowboys great field position early in the game). Otherwise, a whole lot of zeroes. That’s a lot of frustrated NFL return men.
Generally, these plays garner little attention. When teams line up to punt fans start looking to head to the bathroom or for a beverage refill. The punt goes up, it sails out of bounds or the receiver calls a fair catch and the game goes to a commercial. It’s not the most exciting play in football.
But the cumulative effect of these plays is substantial. Bill Parcells liked to talk about the “hidden yardage” within the kicking game. A good example of what he’s talking about can be captured by looking at team’s average starting position. Dallas ranks among the top three in three key starting position measures:
- Dallas starts an average possession at their own 31.4; the second best mark in the league.
- Dallas opponents, on the other hand, start an average possession at their own 24.9; the third best mark in the league. This is the area where Jones’ kicking has a major impact.
- Dallas ranks first in the variance between those two numbers (31.4 - 24.9 = 6.5).
Now, 6.5 yards may not sound like much. But there are 11 possessions in an average Cowboys game. This means the Cowboys enjoy a 71.5 yard advantage in those “hidden yards” that don’t show up on any stat sheet. Through the team’s first nine games that’s 643 yards, which is 160 more yards than any Cowboys’ receiver has on the season. Dallas is on pace to have a 1,144 yard advantage in these hidden yards.
Now, Chris Jones can’t be given all the credit for that number. The offense often moves the ball to midfield when they don’t score, allowing Jones to launch his surgical strikes. And he has no real impact on the team’s starting position. But no one can question that he’s a real contributor to that overall number with his ability to consistently pin opponent’s near their goalline.
One statistical analysis shows that when teams begin a possession between the 20- and 29-yard lines, they score 32 percent of the time. But when a possession starts between the 15 and 19, they score 28.7 percent of the time, and when it starts inside the 15 the rate drops to 23.3 percent. The difference between a touchback and a punt dropped at the 12-yard line is a 10% reduction in opponent’s scoring.
Jones has never been named to the Pro Bowl because he has the misfortune of playing in the same conference as Los Angeles Rams’ punter Johnny Hekker. Hekker is widely regarded as the best punter in the game and perhaps of all time. Like Jones, he’s also able to precisely place his kicks, dropping 51 inside the 20 last season with only a single touchback. His 46.0 net yards per punt was an all-time high. He’s been just as good this year.
Both Jones and Hekker are more than punters; they’re both outstanding all-around athletes. Hekker has famously thrown for eight first downs since 2012.
Hekker’s athleticism makes him a threat on every punt to run or throw; he’s a weapon opponents have to account for. Perhaps Dallas should be doing the same thing with Chris Jones. In addition to Sunday’s (almost) successful pass completion we’ve seen him run for a first down:
And, when returners do have a rare oppotunity to return one of Jones’ kicks they have to be on the lookout for The Puntisher:
Punter Chris Jones out there doing JJ Wilcox impressions ... stealing people's souls. pic.twitter.com/cbhDkabkyn— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) December 27, 2016
Dallas punter Chris Jones lays the HAMMER pic.twitter.com/ttwQ4xIQIW— The Sports Quotient (@SportsQuotient) December 27, 2016
So, while fretting and worrying over the current state of the Cowboys at least take a moment to appreciate the big contributions from punter Chris Jones, he’s been terrific.