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The Drive: Can Michael Dickson fulfill the hype?

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Seattle Seahawks v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

In his first regular season game, Michael Dickson outperformed Seattle’s entire passing offense. The Seahawks passing offense was not bad. In fact it was the second best unit as measured by expected points added contributing 9.28, but Dickson and Seattle’s coverage units added 9.66. Perhaps Seattle’s long curse of bad punting was coming to an end. No more would Super Bowl aspirations be Rouen’d, nor would infernal arguments about Jon Ryan rage, and whatever nostalgia we might feel for pound-for-pound strongest man in the NFL Rick Tuten could be mercifully put to rest. The Seahawks had been bad at punting. The Seahawks did not have to be bad at punting.

The Seahawks have truly been bad at punting. In the 33 complete seasons in which Football Outsiders has data for punting performance, the Seahawks have rated as below average in 24. The cumulative value lost by that bad punting amounts to 47.3 points.

Seattle has only posted back-to-back above average performances punting twice, in 2002 and 2003, and 2012 and 2013. The punters who achieved that feat quickly cratered. Tom Rouen was Seattle’s punter through the best of the Holmgren years, but he declined rapidly in his mid- to late-30s culminating in a disastrous performance in Super Bowl XL. Punting six times, Rouen was unable to avoid kicking into the end zone, resulting in four touchbacks and a net of 31.5 yards.

Jon Ryan is probably Seattle’s best all-time punter. Ryan and the Seahawks coverage units were sterling in 2012 and 2013, adding 22.4 points, but before Ryan was released in 2018, all that value was given away and then some. Ryan lost 10.9 points punting for Seattle, proving Simone de Beauvoir’s evergreen quote:

Both Rouen and Ryan sparked Seattle to draft a punter. This is almost always a mistake, because as much excitement as we felt for Ray Guy Award winners Ryan Plackemeier and Michael Dickson, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir:

It is very uncommon to roster a truly good or truly bad punter. Most gravitate very strongly to okay. The pool of dudes capable of punting always exceeds the number of job openings. Jon Ryan, for instance, got his start in the CFL. If you’re going to spend resources on a punter, that player better be something special, not because punters belong to the dalit caste of NFL players, but because the position is fungible.

Which is why drafting Dickson 149th overall rankled a few people. Most fifth-round picks contribute little to no value to the team drafting them, but the potential exists to draft a player at a harder to fill position of great value. Seahawks fans needn’t follow the link, really. Kam Chancellor. Richard Sherman. Seahawks management maybe should’ve.

What really turns the screw though is that Seattle very probably overspent not for the McClaren F1 of punting but the Holden Camira. That’s too mean, but maybe the Holden Astra. Five punters entered the NFL in 2018: Dickson, JK Scott, Logan Cooke, Johnny Townsend and Corey Bojorquez. Scott has been worth 2.7 points. Cooke’s the real find of the group and Jacksonville led the NFL in punting last season and rates number one this season. He has been worth 17.5 points. Dickson has lost four. Townsend was the worst punter in the NFL last season, losing Oakland 12.0 points, and is now out of the league. Bojorquez, who shares a surname with the villain from the schlock movie masterpiece McBain, was signed by Buffalo after being released by New England in 2018. He’s lost the Bills 21.1 points.

Seattle guessed wrong, it would seem. Seattle’s former punter Ryan leads the CFL in average yards per punt and singles, which are a scoring play. Dickson’s value did not hold and the player he was drafted to replace still plays, if for another league in another country. Or, so it’s been. But Dickson was good again last Sunday. The blunted parabola of his punts reached Atlanta’s returners far down the field and with Seahawks tolerably close.

A better returner could have probably done something with this but the distance makes up somewhat for the so-so height.

Another long punt, this time coverage is closer.

This one was so deep and high that the returner had to retreat to field it. That factored into Seattle tackling Kenjon Barner for a loss of one.

We end with a pooch that Ugo Amadi could have probably let bounce. That’s splitting hairs.

Dickson is not the punting unit and the performance of the punting unit is not totally dependent on Dickson, but he’s the big dog. He’s the quarterback of Seattle’s punting unit and most of how well that group performs depends on him punting high, far and fast enough to avoid being blocked.

Every season in the NFL is somehow both enjoyable for whatever it becomes and Super Bowl or bust. The possibility of a Super Bowl run emerging from almost any season is a lot of what makes the former true. Most teams for most of the season can believe some combination of developing talent and luck can make any season special. The Seahawks have a ton of developing talent. One such talent, who Seattle invested a relative fortune in, is Michael Dickson.

Dickson made the Pro Bowl in his first season. This was most likely an example of anchoring. He was a celebrated college punter, he was hyped, and he joined an organization whose fan base was uniquely predisposed to like oddball personnel moves. Seahawks fans expected a great punter. Seahawks fans saw a great punter. Seattle finished 20th in punting value. This year, and before last Sunday, the Seahawks ranked 24th. Which reminds me of another quote by Beauvoir:

Not that one. This one:

Being a fan of a sports team is a chance to be joyfully wrong. My guess is Dickson is going to be just another punter—a guy rather than Ray Guy. But he’s young, we don’t have a ton of information, and I would really rather be wrong.

Turning the opportunity of a 6-2 record into a special season is going to take something extra from this team. Football Outsiders projects Seattle’s playoff odds as little more than a coin flip; FiveThirtyEight a little less. The prospect of trading more draft capital for another okay veteran does not thrill me. This team needs improvement from the guys within the building.

Rankle derives from a word which means fester. Punting has been a wound that wouldn’t heal for the Seahawks. Dickson was supposed to end that, heal that wound. He hasn’t. But he can. And if he does, and some few of Seattle’s abundant youth step up, and Russell Wilson continues playing like the best overall player in the NFL, I dare believe 6-2 could become 14-2 could become 17-2. The fun is the possibility and the possibility for this season remains unbounded.