Punt-off: the Pittsburgh Steelers Roster Competition

via FoxSports

Considering the difficulties the Steelers have had in securing an “above-the-line” punter, the current roster battle must be heartening to the coaching staff. (n.b. All quotes in the article will be Tomlinisms. Obviously.)

A native of Melbourne, Australia, Brad Wing was signed in 2014 to compete for a roster spot. He had a rather colorful college career. His last two years at Louisiana State University he averaged 44.6 yards per punt, a school record. He also had a touchdown nullified for taunting, enforcing a new NCAA rule, was issued a misdemeanor summons on a charge of battery, and was suspended from the Chick-fil-A Bowl for a violation of team rules.

His career with the Pittsburgh Steelers has been checkered as well, although only on the field, as far as I know. Last season he averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with over 42% of them being returned. His overall rating by Pro Football Focus of -6.6 made him No. 33 out of 36 punters in the league, at least as far as PFF is concerned.

But he did show flashes of resourcefulness, notably when he threw a pass to Matt Spaeth for a two-point conversion after something went badly wrong with an extra-point attempt for which he was the holder. And he had one shining game, in Week 2, where he garnered a 1.3 rating for the week. Seven of his games were “above the line,” in other words over 0.0. But when he was bad he was really bad, so the season total wasn’t pretty.

Along comes another Australian, Jordan Berry, to challenge Wing for the job. It must seem very strange that the only other person on the team to whom you can truly relate in terms of background is the guy whose job you are trying to take.

As an aside, Australia is a big country. Really big, like about the same size as the continental United States. So it’s interesting that their hometowns are less than a 20-minute drive apart. This must make it all the weirder.

Berry matriculated at Eastern Kentucky, averaging 43.4 yards as a senior. As far as I can ascertain, his college career was otherwise uneventful.

The Steelers signed a third punter, Riche Leone, early in 2015, but cut him in May, so it’s mano a mano between the Aussies.

If you’re the Steelers, what do you do? It’s hard to say a clear winner has emerged. The Steelers presumably have a “level of comfort” with Wing, since they know the baseline and perhaps hope for more. On the other hand, “the arrow is pointing up” for Berry, who had several nice punts, including one downed by Antwon Blake at the 1-yard line in the Steelers-Packers preseason game. While they wait for “clarity,” “iron is sharpening iron.” But the coaching staff will have to choose pretty soon. Or will they?

Here’s what I would do, if I were a certain coach of a certain Eastern Seaboard team. After all, the stars have aligned for this.

Note several things. First, both men are punters. Both are Austrailian, and from the exact same bit of Australia, so any regional accent in their speech should be quite similar. In fact, to the average American, who struggles to tell the difference between an Australian, a South African, and an English accent, they are indistinguishable.

Both men are white. Both are tall and slender. Berry is 6’5”, 210 pounds—Wing is 6’3”, 205 pounds. This is nothing which is going to stand out when they are on the field. especially when standing next to kicker Garrett Hartley, who is 5’8”. Anyone looks tall next to him.

Berry’s hair is darker than Wing’s, and he wears it shorter. Wing sports a sort of Oxford-don-meets-punk style. This could be easily emulated by Berry, and disguises things such as Berry’s prominent widow’s peak. Dye will take care of the rest.

Besides, as long as the helmet is on, you never see the hair, and how many people actually look at a punter except when they are on the field? Other than, perhaps, their mothers?

Certainly one doesn’t “worry about style points” when you’re trying to win games. And “anyone in a helmet is a playmaker for us.”

I’m sure you can see where this is going. “Cut” one of them and announce that the loser of the contest has returned to Australia to work as an insurance agent. This will prevent any American journalists from attempting to interview him, even if they were so inclined, as no one voluntarily talks to an insurance agent. The loser is now effectively dead.

Set them both up in a luxury apartment with strict instruction to never be seen leaving together. Have a private kicking field deep in the heart of your stadium, and dress the guy (with the supposed roster member’s jersey name and number, naturally) who has the best stuff on any given day. Remind them “you have to flush it out, move forward, and remember that the next snap is the most important one.” 

Voila—you have two punters for the price of one (at least in terms of the salary cap and the roster limit,) and naturally if one turns out to be the person you dress most of the time, you quietly whisk away the guy who ‘keeps kicking [his own] butt.” If not, you “go with the hot hand.” (Sorry, I slipped in a Clint Hurdleism…) You then have “structure without the feel of structure.”

What will the Steelers actually do, since they don’t seem to roll the same way as the above-mentioned franchise? I have no idea, other than they will surely “let the circumstances dictate the usage.”

But if you should happen to read that the Steelers have waived one of the punters, and then should shortly afterwards read that said punter has decided to “get on with his life’s work” and has returned to his native land, you might want to start watching the alleged winner of the roster battle a bit more closely.

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