Each week here on PhinPhanatic, I will look to highlight one unsung hero or goat whom has had a dramatic impact on the Miami Dolphins’ recent performance. We will discuss in depth that individual’s contributions (or lack there of) to the team’s successes and failures during the 2012 season. This week, that person is punter Brandon Fields.
Often the most forgotten man on a roster behind only the long snapper, punters are generally considered to be irrelevant to a team’s success. But very quietly, the punting averages of the top NFL punters have dramatically grown over the past few years, widening the gap between the league’s elite and the replacement level punter, thereby increasing the value of a talented specialist. The difference between the best and worst punter in the NFL in 2006, the year before Fields came into the league, was only 8 yards per kick, whereas thus far in 2012 the difference is over 10. A replacement level punter is beginning to be a marked downgrade over the league’s elite.
Fields, a Dolphins’ 7th round pick out of Michigan State in 2007, is certainly not a replacement level punter. In fact, he is beginning to move into the conversation with the San Francisco 49ers’ Andy Lee and Oakland Raiders’ Shane Lechler for All-Pro consideration. Fields has taken steady steps forward in terms of statistical performance each season since his rookie year. At age 28, Fields is entering the prime years of his career and is poised to continue his growth.
Thus far in 2012, Fields is carrying a gross punting average of 51.0 yards per kick, second only to the New Orleans Saints’ Thomas Morstead, whom has the distinct advantage of kicking from within a climate-controlled dome. Fields also ranks in a tie for fourth place with a net average of 42.7 yards per kick. For an up-and-coming team like the Dolphins whom are not yet an offensive juggernaut and for whom the field position battle is paramount to success, these numbers are extremely crucial to long-term success.
In his two biggest punting matchups of the year, versus the aforementioned Lechler and well hyped St. Louis Rams rookie Johnny Hekker, Fields not only significantly out-kicked his more accoladed opponent, he single-handedly dominated the field position battle for the Dolphins. Particularly in the contest against the Rams, where traditional yardage statistics showed the Dolphins having no business even being close on the scoreboard, the punting battle proved quietly significant. While the Dolphins gained far less net yards from scrimmage than the Rams (462-192), they won the punting yardage battle 323-135. Yes, this was on three more punts than the Rams, but Fields’ average was still almost 9 yards greater than Hekker’s and the combined yardage of 515 for the Dolphins comes much closer to the Rams combined total of 597 and provides a clearer picture of how the Dolphins were able to be within range to steal the win.
While QB Ryan Tannehill and the significant upgrade in coaching staff over prior years are likely the main factors for the Dolphins’ significant performance improvement this season, the improvement in special teams, specifically where it relates to the opponent’s starting field position should not be overlooked. As any Dolphins fan would remember, a once promising 2010 season was derailed by disastrous special teams blunders, with returners gashing both the kick and punt coverage units almost at will. Over the past two seasons, Fields has adjusted, improving both his directional kicking and his hang time, while continuing to maximize distance. Kicker Dan Carpenter, while much maligned for his field goal kicking this year, has developed similar kick control on his kickoffs, leading to a dramatic improvement in overall special teams performance.
In fact, according to Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), the Dolphins have the 8th best special teams in the NFL through Week 7 despite having far and away the worst field goal kicking rating in the league. Erase Carpenter’s field goal struggles and the remainder of the Dolphins special teams have suddenly become a top 5 unit in the NFL, this after being 29th in the league as recently as 2010. Fields plays as big a role in this turnaround as anyone, even contributing three tackles on the year, and it has allowed the Dolphins to begin to sniff playoff contention once again.
While many Dolphins fans love to pile on General Manager Jeff Ireland, somewhere in between dodging the “Fireland” picketers and fans telling him to fire himself, Ireland quietly signed Fields to a four-year extension this off-season, locking the punter up through 2016. At $13.3 million over the course of the deal with $3.3 million guaranteed, this does put Fields in the top-five paid punters in the league, but for a team whose current path to victory is a grind-it-out, smash-mouth, field position battle, investing in a proven punter entering what should be the prime years of his career is sound cap management. With mediocre punters such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Michael Koenen recently signing for similar money and more years (6 years/$19.5 million), the deal certainly seems favorable based on the market.
Fields may never get the national recognition of a Lechler or a Lee, and he may never even get significant recognition within the Dolphins fan base (after all, when is the last time you saw someone wearing a punter’s jersey around town), but he is certainly playing a significant role in the Dolphins success in 2012. As one of the team’s longest tenured players and one whom has a contract that extends well into the future, he will be one of the main special teams building blocks as the team builds to a potential playoff run in 2012 and championship contention in the years to come. His performance to date makes him this week’s Miami Dolphins Unsung Hero.