It's a blessed time for kickers of all kind: The stringy fast ones that fight; the athletic ones that run after their kicks; and the extremophiles of the genus, whose legs pivot 270º, that kick but a few times, but kick hard and fast against a tide of defenders. Pass that mutagen around the dinner table Gramaticas - you're million dollar freaks. Today, Jon Ryan is one of you.
Special teams is important. Football Outsiders estimates that special teams account for one-seventh of a team's total quality. Special teams is predictable and unpredictable in turns. Olindo Mare can predictably kick farther than most place kickers, but cannot predictably kick field goals. The former is important, but the latter can cost him his job.
A punter faces a similar dilemma. After a sufficient number of attempts, it's possible to judge a punter's ability to kick the ball far, but that's only part of how we evaluate a punter's performance. The two other major abilities are loft and direction. Loft should be measurable by hang time, but hang time is sporadically recorded. Direction is, well, probably a lot like field goal accuracy: appreciable but hardly predicative.
In lieu of intuitive measures like hang time, we're left with advanced and unintelligible metrics like DVOA and EPA. It's not difficult to understand what either measures, but it's about impossible to tack either onto an individual player. EPA indicates that Seattle had the fifth best punting performance in the NFL. DVOA indicates that Seattle had the 22nd best punting performance in the NFL. DVOA is adjusted for weather, and the Seahawks faced the most timid conditions of any team this season. Even if inexact, and both are, DVOA is probably the more proper measure.
Neither stat successfully isolates the punter and neither stat can tell us if Ryan is a good signing. Here's my subjective measure of Ryan's punting skills. He can kick far, but because he kicks low. That shows up somewhat in his "fair catches". Before this season, Ryan was never good at forcing fair catches. He was well below average. This season he ranked eighth with 17. It's possible that is indicative of improvement, but without scanning play by play to be sure, I imagine it's more likely that teams stopped returning against Seattle because the score was lopsided and a return represented an unnecessary risk. Why take to the house when you can take it and laugh out the clock.
His line-drive kicking style also shows up in his return totals. Ryan allowed the third most total return yards. That's not meaningful in isolation. Seattle punted a lot. But this is a combination, await the left hook. Ryan allowed the second highest return average among the top ten punters in total returns yards allowed. Only rookie Thomas Moorestead bested Ryan, and Moorestead had only 25 returns. That small sample is dramatically affected by a single return touchdown. Ryan had the most return yards allowed by any punter with 40 or more attempts: 11.14.
I am not going to delve too deep into directional kicking. I've never seen any proof Ryan can, but then, I don't know how consistently any punter can. It does seem quite akin to field goal accuracy. Both represent a skill, but both skills are too slippery to measure. Ryan seems bad. We'll leave it at that.
Maybe Ryan was kicking long and shallow because the Seahawks offense was awful. The 2007 Green Bay Packers had a top five offense in drive length. Surely if Ryan was able to kick high instead of just long, he would have with them. And, indeed, Ryan was able to force 14 fair catches and just 5.95 yards per return in 60 punts before the Packers fired him. Which seems good, but Ryan also punted 11 touchbacks, second worst in the NFL, and the far and away worst per punt average. Green Bay lost -3.7 points of field position because of punts. Ryan can't ratchet back the leg. Long and shallow is just how he kicks.
And that's very, very bad. Long and shallow is valuable to bad teams because they must struggle to flip field position. But who gives a damn about the punter on a bad team? Interim GM Ruston Webster is who. If Seattle becomes good again, Ryan's ability and type become a liability. On a short field, Ryan is either going to boom a touchback or slap a drive to the returner. He hurts Seattle more as Seattle becomes better. It's the curse of Tom Rouen reborn.