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Kicker Consideration, Week 17: Season in review

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The likely end of the Jon Ryan era, current longest tenured Seahawk.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This season debuted the “Kicker Consideration” series, a weekly review of the special teams units of the Seattle Seahawks. What a spot-on year to begin a series like this one, huh?

Jon Ryan ends year with a game of inconsistent punts

Reading the stat lines for the season-ending game against the Arizona Cardinals, it’s not immediately obvious that Ryan has a bit of a poor outing in Seattle. The long time Seahawks punter averaged 43.5 yards a punt, however several of his punts were more line drive than the tall, booming sort that allow your coverage to get to the returner effectively. As a result, for the second time in the last three games the team averaged less than 40 net yards per punt, a considerably bad mark and losing the field position battle all day again like they did against the Rams in Week 15 was very hard to watch.

Ryan catches too much of the side of the ball with this kick and his body language afterward really says it all.

As I’ve written about before, Ryan’s cap hit increases substantially following this season. With so many upcoming re-signings in the works, it would seem that Ryan’s $3.2 million cap hit next season might be more than they’re willing to spend on a punter who isn’t an undeniable Pro Bowler or All-Pro. We may have just watched his last game in a Seahawks uniform.

Jon Ryan 2017 season stats and trends

On the year, Ryan ranked 17th in average punt length (45 yards) and 30th in net punt yardage after return (40.1). Ryan had his most punts in a season since 2011, not-so-coincidentally the last time Seattle failed to make the playoffs. Ryan’s average punt length in 2017 was good for the sixth best of his 12-year career and he had a punt of 74 yards, the second-longest of his career and nearly the longest in the NFL this season.

One of the main complaints about Ryan this season has been consistency, but is there validity to this claim? Going back to 2009 in the NFL, play by play database I parsed through every Jon Ryan punt for 11 of his 12 seasons (the 2008 season was not available on the play by play level using NFLscrapR) and what I found was incredibly interesting given the consistency narrative:

Ryan has never been more consistent in punt yardage, ever.

In the above graph, the lower the standard deviation the less variable kick distance is. The only other season where Ryan recorded a comparable variability was 2010, which was his worst season by average punt distance, by comparison the average punt for Ryan in 2017 is four yards longer.

Yards, like so many other statistics, don’t tell the entire story. When punters start to lose leg strength it may not show on the yardage stats because their punts can get flatter. A flat punt means it travels downfield faster and therefore makes it harder for your coverage unit to arrive at the returner immediately following the catch. So, have Ryan’s punts gotten flatter? Absolutely possible, but it’s also possible that the coverage unit this year was not up to the task. With the NFL no longer publishing hang time stats, due to measurement consistency problems, that question begs for its own research and one the Seahawks will surely evaluate this off-season whether or not they look to extend Ryan and lower his 2018/2019 staggering cap space hit of $3.2 and $3.6 million respectively. One thing is for sure, something is surely rotten in the teams punt performance according to Football Outsiders who rank Seattle as the second worst punting unit in the NFL by DVOA.

Blair Walsh ends tumultuous season with 48-yard miss

Unbelievable? Hardly with the way this season shaped up. In a game where Walsh makes a season-long 49-yard kick, maybe there were signs he was starting to turn the corner. With just 30 seconds remaining in the game, the decision by the Seahawks to run up the middle and settle for a 48-yard field goal attempt was puzzling as the team played exactly like news of the Falcons’ win over the Panthers had registered into the collective mind of the coaching staff.

Perhaps, if nothing else, the final offensive play of Seattle’s was a referendum on Walsh. One last attempt to be a game-winning kicker, and perhaps even a camp invite on the line but then Walsh misses, giving Bruce Arians his 50th win as a Cardinals head coach and snapping the streak of 10-win seasons for the Seahawks.

If there is a silver lining, the slightly better draft pick and likelihood of a new place kicker helps ease the pain. Though, had the kick mattered, had Atlanta not won their matchup, it could have been so much worse.

Blair Walsh 2017 season stats and trends

Walsh’s performance this season never recovered from the disaster of a game against Washington where he went 0-for-3 on field goal attempts. What followed as the air began to cool in the Pacific Northwest was nothing short of a meltdown.

Walsh ended 2017 with the absolute worst field goal percentage of his career — 72.4%, any hopes of a rehabilitation after a disastrous 2016 season were dashed even as his PAT percentage registered for 3rd best in his career and eighth best in the league at 97.37%.

Among the 28 kickers in the NFL with at least 20 field goal attempts on the season, only Aldrick Rosas of the Giants had a worse field goal percentage than Walsh, and even then only by .41%. What started as yet another low cost rehab project for John Schneider to squeeze just a little more cap space exploded spectacularly in front of our eyes as we watch from afar Steven Hauschka ride off into the playoffs with the Buffalo Bills.

Special teams prove more crucial this year than last

To begin the season, when I was still just shooting fanposts off into the ether, I wrote about the number of points the Seahawks could expect to lose moving from Hauschka to Walsh. You can read the breakdown here if you’re so inclined. But, the question remains what did signing Walsh cost Seattle as far as wins? There are a million different ways in which changing kickers could have changed the play calls but simplistically let’s apply Hauschka’s field goal percentage to Walsh’s attempts for 2017; doing so yields roughly 25.5 field goals made, instead of the stark reality of Walsh at 21-of-29.

This is — as noted — a simplistic attempt to apply Hauschka’s season for another team in another (cold) city to what Walsh did this season, and I think a reasonable expectation based on what we know is additional 4-5 made field goals.

If we choose 25, then Seattle lost approximately .75 points per game in general but very likely the team beats Washington. In fact, no matter how you distribute those four additional field goals, you cannot help but increase the Seahawks win total by at least one. Should you select 26, Seattle wins one more and either the Washington or Atlanta game goes to overtime. The numbers tell the story that most fans already know, signing Walsh at best cost the team a 10-win season, at worst a playoff berth.

Overall, the Seahawks special teams unit under performed in almost every aspect. In 2016, Seattle ranked 15th in special teams DVOA. This year, between poor field goal percentage and sub-par punt coverage the team dropped into the bottom third of the league at 20th place. The one bright spot being kickoffs where the team performed ninth best in the NFL. Special teams performance is an often overlooked area by fans, but an important aspect in the battle for field position and for winning games. If the Seahawks want to bounce back from a disappointing 2017 campaign, improving performance throughout the special teams will be key in doing so.

A farewell to the longest tenured Seahawk?

Jon Ryan joined Seattle after Week 1 of the 2008 season and has been with them ever since. Ryan has been a consummate professional with the organization, an American Ninja warrior contestant, a guest on Bar Rescue, and a worthy Super Bowl champion. He is quite literally one of the few punters in history who could say he’s directly responsible for his team making the Super Bowl.

If this is the end of the Seahawks’ relationship with the long term punter for cap reasons, I understand but I can’t help but feel sad. In a perfect world Ryan would spend the rest of his career launching footballs into orbit at Century Link, but perhaps that’s just not meant to be. If it makes sense to do so, I sincerely hope the team extends Ryan to lower his cap hit in the upcoming two seasons so that we can all see him in many Sundays to come. But if not, if this is goodbye, thank you for everything.