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Michael Dickson, unsung hero

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
Michael Dickson holds for a Jason Myers extra point against Arizona in October of 2020.
Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

The Seahawks’ 2020 season was marred by inconsistency on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The team’s one consistently elite unit was special teams. Michael Dickson, the Seahawks’ incredible punter, had the second-highest punting average in the league, and had 32 punts downed inside the 20 yard-line. No other punter had 30+.

Dickson’s brilliance was clear when he came into the league as a rookie in 2018; he was awarded First-Team All-Pro at his position, as well as a spot in the Pro Bowl. Dickson was given this honor in large part due to his punting volume. He finished 7th in punts with 78, 6th in punt yards with 3,759, and 2nd in punt average, with 48.2 yards/punt. Yet, despite these solid stats, Dickson was not terribly efficient; he only finished 22nd in inside-the-20 percentage (percentage of his punts which are downed inside the opponent’s 20 yard-line) with 34.1%.

Michael Dickson’s punts inside the 20 yard-line by game in 2020.

In 2020, Dickson drastically increased his inside-the-20 percentage to 54.1%, while also bringing up his punting average to 49.6 yards/punt. Thankfully for the Seahawks offense, Dickson only punted 61 times the past season, but when he did take the field, he was able to make a significant impact on the game. In fact, Dickson was perhaps even more deserving of All-Pro honors in 2020 than he was in 2018. Dickson’s punting record in 2020 is inseparable from the Seahawks’ success.

Off to a Hot Start

Michael Dickson’s stats from Weeks 1-5, compared with his season-long stats.

Just like the Seahawks offense, Dickson got off to a red-hot start during the team’s first five games of the season (all of which, of course, were victories). In the first five weeks, Dickson punted 22 times. His punts were downed inside the 20 yard-line an astonishing 15 times, good for an inside-the-20 percentage of 68.2%. Had Dickson kept up this production the entire season, he would have easily led the league in this statistical category.

Dickson’s punts were also crucial in helping the historically awful Seahawks defense have a field-position advantage in the early part of the season. On average, opponents who Seattle faced in Weeks 1-5 started possessions following Dickson punts on their own 13 yard-line; his mark for the whole season was the 16 yard-line. Dickson did this in part by managing to keep his kicks out of the end zone, only kicking two touchbacks during this stretch.

In the first two games, opponents scored just three points on eight possessions following Dickson punts. Dickson was especially impressive in the second of these two games, against the New England Patriots, where he pinned the Patriots inside the 20 yard-line on all four of his punts, and inside the 10 yard-line twice. This performance earned Dickson NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, and helped bring the Seahawks to the top of the NFL’s special teams DVOA ratings.

Dickson’s ability to affect the game through flipping field position was even more pronounced in Seattle’s Week 5 Sunday Night Football matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. In the game, Dickson was able to pin the Vikings at or inside their own 15 yard-line on all five of his punts. His play was the difference in a game which Seattle won by one point with a D.K. Metcalf fourth down touchdown, the thinnest of margins.

Through the first five games, despite playing with quite literally one of the worst defenses in NFL history, Dickson’s punts were very effective in keeping opponents (who often marched down the field with remarkable ease) off of the scoreboard. Opposing teams were only able to score touchdowns 18% of the time on possessions following Dickson punts. The efficiency of the punting unit helped Seattle to a 4th-place special teams DVOA ranking after five weeks. This was a massive improvement for Seattle; the unit finished 20th in 2019, and 24th in 2018 (Michael Dickson’s All-Pro season).

All Good Things Must Come to An End...Sort of

Michael Dickson’s stats from Weeks 7-13, compared with his season-long stats and his stats from Weeks 1-5.

The dream start for Dickson and the Seahawks didn’t last forever, though, and as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense returned back to Earth, so did Dickson. Over the course of the next seven games, Dickson punted 23 times. His inside-the-20 percentage dropped was just 34.8% during this period (Weeks 7-13), which would have been good for 23rd in the NFL had it been his mark for the season. His touchback percentage during the middle part of the season was worse too, going from 9.1% in Weeks 1-5 to 17.4% during Weeks 7-13.

Part of Dickson’s decreased level of performance was due to the Seahawks’ offensive decline. Instead of punting from the 39 yard-line (on average) as he had from Weeks 1-5, Dickson averaged punting from the 35 yard-line during this stretch. This may seem like a small difference, but when a punter’s punting average is 49.6 yards/punt, this puts their average boot at the opponent’s 16 yard-line rather than the 12 yard-line, significantly decreasing the number of times a punter is able to pin an opposing offense inside its 20 yard-line.

However, there were other dips in performance for which more blame can be placed on Dickson. During this period of the season, his touchback percentage rose dramatically, from 9.1% in Weeks 1-5 to 17.4% (which would have been good for dead last in the NFL had it been his mark for the season), despite punting from further in the Seahawks’ own territory, on average.

Although Dickson’s performance certainly worsened during this time period, thanks to a myriad of factors (some of which weren’t necessarily in his control), Weeks 7-13 didn’t come without a few high points for Dickson. In the team’s loss in Los Angeles, Dickson punted three times, putting all three inside the Rams’ 13 yard-line, which was crucial in setting up the Seahawks defense. He had two or more punts downed inside the 20 yard-line in 5 of the 7 games from Weeks 7-13, and even positioned the defense to pick up two safeties during this time frame.

These successes were marred by a two-touchback game against the Giants, and a game against Arizona in which none of his punts got inside the Cardinals’ 30 yard-line (a game in which he was not helped out by the offense: he punted from the Seahawks’ 28 yard-line on average). Overall, though, his efficiency was not dramatically affected; in fact, during this time, the Seahawks’ special teams DVOA increased to 6.8%, good for third in the league (a rise which was certainly greatly assisted by Jason Myers’ accuracy).

Dickson did slip up at times during this stretch and produced a few lackluster performances, but the faltering offense often put him in difficult positions, and he showed his All-Pro abilities in many of key games. As the Seahawks made a push for the division title in the final four weeks, Dickson played at an even higher level, and became more efficient than he had been all season, turning an already good season into an elite one.

Finishing Strong

Michael Dickson’s stats from Weeks 14-17, compared with his season-long stats, stats from Weeks 1-5, and stats from Weeks 7-13.

During the Seahawks’ final four game of the regular season, Dickson played like a man possessed. Returning to early-season form, he landed 62.5% of his punts inside the 20 yard-line, despite punting from his own 33 yard-line on average from Weeks 14-17. He also had zero touchbacks.

As Dickson began to play at an All-Pro level again, the Seahawks defense was playing its best football of the season. The two worked in tandem to provide relief to a Seahawks offense that was falling apart at the seams. During this four-week period, Seahawks opponents scored on just 37.5% possessions following Dickson punts for an average of 1.6 points per possession (the season-long marks were 42.6% and 2.1 points, respectively). Opponents also scored touchdowns on just 12.5% possessions following Dickson punts during this stretch, far better than the 21% mark the team recorded for the entire 2020 season.

Over the course of three games from Weeks 14-16, Dickson landed eight consecutive punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard-line (and 9 of 10). While Dickson was excellent in the Seahawks’ division-clinching win over the Rams, putting 4 of his 5 punts inside Los Angeles’ 20 yard-line, perhaps his best performance was against the Football Team in Week 15.

On his first punt, Dickson pinned the Football Team inside their own five yard-line. His other three punts forced Washington to start their drives at their eight, ten, and 15 yard-lines, respectively. His performance was once again essential in a one-possession Seahawks victory. For the second time in the 2020 season, Dickson had produced a statline which saw two of his punts pinned inside the 20, and an additional two pinned inside the 10, and for the second time in 2020, he had won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Even as Jason Myers faltered slightly, missing two extra points in the final four games, Dickson’s efficient play kept the Seahawks’ special teams DVOA at 6.8%, allowing them to finish third in the league in the category (he was also helped by Pro-Bowlers Nick Bellore and Tyler Ott).

The formula which the Seahawks employed for victory in the final stretch of the regular season was vastly different than what worked from Weeks 1-5; rather than simply relying on outscoring opponents, the late-season Seahawks’ success was centered around their defense bailing out a lackluster offense. In both instances, however, Dickson’s success was crucial to that of the team; whether he was working in tandem with a strong defense to set up the Seahawks offense with good field position, or pinning opponents deep in their own territory to aid a lackluster defensive unit.

Dickson’s Impact

Punting doesn’t often decide NFL games on its own; the truth is, the case for Dickson’s punting deciding a result can really only be made for four or five from the 2020 season. Against New England, punting resulted in 4.13 expected points added for Seattle in what was a five-point win. Against Minnesota, Seattle got 3.57 EPA from punting in a one-point win. Against Washington, Seattle got 4.28 EPA from punting in a five-point win, and in Week 17 against the 49ers, the Seahawks got 4.20 EPA from punting in a three-point win.

The Seahawks’ punting EPA by game in 2020.

EPA is not a perfect metric, of course; it only defines expected points added from the performance of the punting unit. Yet, there is no doubt that Dickson’s punts contributed significantly to all of those victories, even if it wasn’t necessarily the deciding factor.

Although Dickson did not have the same game-changing effect in a number of the Seahawks’ other games, whether it be for lack of punts or performance, or a large margin of victory/defeat, his EPA never dipped below zero. In other words, Dickson, even in the Seahawks’ darkest hours, was still positively contributing to the performance of the team. While these contributions were sometimes modest, Dickson was strong in other poor Seahawks performances, too, including the loss at the Rams and the loss at home against the Giants (with 2.02 and 1.61 EPA, respectively).

It’s easy to look briefly at Dickson’s season and think that his success was solely a symptom of the Seahawks’ success; that when they performed poorly, his efficiency was dragged down as well. There is certainly evidence for this hypothesis; after all, Dickson performed at his worst when the Seahawks’ offense was undergoing its mid-season transformation, and when the team was in the midst of a losing skid. However, through a thorough examination of the relationship between the correlation between his performance and that, it becomes clear that Dickson is much more crucial to the Seahawks’ success than first meets the eye.

Some of Dickson’s best performances came in games where he was able to lift an otherwise middling Seahawks performance. Yes, there were games, like the loss against Buffalo, where Dickson couldn’t have done much to affect the result. Yet, when the Seahawks offense faltered at home against Minnesota and Los Angeles, and on the road against San Francisco and Washington, Dickson picked up the slack and contributed significantly to Seattle’s victory, despite having to punt from fairly deep in his own territory. When the Seahawks defense was on life support against New England and Dallas, Dickson made key punts late in both games that proved to be just enough to assist the defense in keeping the Patriots and Cowboys out of the end zone.

In all six of these games, Dickson’s EPA exceeded 3.5 points, which was more than the Seahawks’ offense in two of the games, and more than the defense in all but one of them. Even when the rest of the Seahawks were unable to add much to the team’s performance, Dickson brought a crucial, under-appreciated edge which could prove to be the difference between winning and losing. Instead of simply following the performance of the team, or having no effect, more often than not, the performance of the team was frequently shaped by Dickson.

Dickson wasn’t named as an All-Pro, and didn’t even make the Pro Bowl. Yet, the value he added to the Seahawks in the 2020 season is difficult to capture through any award. Instead, his importance to the team can be quantified through an understanding of his contributions in tight victories, and his uncanny ability to lift the team’s efficiency even when little else beyond punting seems to be working properly.