Over the last two decades, the New England Patriots established themselves as one of the most dominant NFL franchises. Since 2001, the team has made it to the Super Bowl nine times and won a staggering six championships. That total ties them with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins ever.
The Patriots’ success stems from a variety of factors, including having one of the all-time best coaches in Bill Belichick and one of the all-time great quarterbacks in Tom Brady. Yet some also point out another advantage the Patriots use: left-footed punters. Let’s break down the theory to understand the impact these left-footed punters have.
The advantages of left-footed punters
Before we dive into the Patriots’ history with left-footed punters, it’s worth taking looking at the purported advantages of left-footed punters. On an abstract level, the main advantage boils down to unpredictability. Because most punters are right-footed, punt returners are far better at reading the clockwise spin on a ball kicked by a right-footed punter.
A left-footed punter, by contrast, imparts a counterclockwise spin on the ball. In other words, the ball will spin in the opposite direction, potentially confusing the returner. Likewise, a ball kicked by a left-footed punter will fade to the right of the returner instead of the left. This increases the risks of hesitation, fumbles, and muffs.
For many years, the advantages of left-footed punters were anecdotal. More recently, however, NFL statisticians looked into the correlation between punting foot and muff rate. Those studies confirm that left-footed punters have an advantage albeit a slight one. Left-footed punts have a muff rate of 3.32%, reports How to Ember, compared to a muff rate of 2.55% for right-footed punters.
In other words, for every 100 punts, a left-footed punter will yield one more muff than a right-footed punter. This advantage grows smaller when you consider that the majority of muffs get recovered by the receiving team.
The Patriots’ left-footed punters
The advantage of left-handed punters is indeed statistically significant. Yet teams also use other metrics to judge the impact and skill of a punter. These include things like hang time, distance, and accuracy. The advantage of left-handed punters doesn’t seem strong enough to outweigh those factors.
Nonetheless, the Patriots demonstrate a curious preference for left-handed punters. During Belichick’s time as coach, the Patriots’ punters have included Ryan Allen, Zoltan Mesko, Josh Miller, and Ken Walter. As you can guess, all of those punting specialists happen to be left-footed.
That string of left-handed punters finally ended this last season. Before the beginning of the season, the Patriots chose to release veteran punter Ryan Allen, who’d been with the team for six years. The job went to rookie Jake Bailey, who became Belichick’s first full-time right-handed punter during the coach’s entire tenure with the Patriots.
Belichick’s thoughts on left-footed punters
Belichick is known as one of the canniest coaches in the league; one who analyzes every single roster move and decision the team makes. So it’s no surprise that Belichick has faced questions over the years about his fondness for left-footed punters.
Back in 2014, Belichick made headlines with a rather long-winded answer to the question. His response acknowledged the trend, as well as the perceived advantages of left-footed punters. Ultimately, Belichick insisted the Patriots’ history of left-footed punters was “not really by design.”
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