Punting is, in its essence, an admission of defeat: a team’s offense failed to gain the appropriate yardage to keep a drive alive and is forced to kick the football away to its opponent and send its defense onto the field. As is the case with everything else in the NFL, and life in general, the topic is not as black-and-white as it seems, though. Punting, after all, can also change a team’s fortunes by flipping the field position in a favorable way.
Jake Bailey has done just that for the New England Patriots this season, time and again. On Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, the rookie, who was selected by the Patriots in the fifth round of this year’s draft, punted the football eight times — his second-highest total of the season — and averaged 47.6 yards per punt with a net gain of 46.0 yards. Due to his strong leg, he consistently helped his team stay on top in the field position battle.
His impact, of course, was not limited to punting the football: Bailey also served as the holder on all three of Nick Folk’s field goals, and furthermore has taken on kickoff duties when Stephen Gostkowski was placed on season-ending injured reserve in early October. Add it all up and you get the Stanford product having his hands on nine of the Patriots’ 17 points, and also giving the team a 14-yard advantage in starting field position.
“Jake did an excellent job for us punting, holding. Kickoffs... we had one there that he missed, but overall, he’s hit the ball well. He’s hit the ball well for us all year,” said head coach Bill Belichick about the 22-year-old earlier this week. “Jake’s had a great year for us and he continues to come in with some really big plays there, flipping the field position and also on the plus-50 of getting the ball up there and making it tough [...] to handle.”
Bailey is quickly developing into a weapon for the Patriots, and he was arguably at his best against the Eagles. With the offense being unable to get into a rhythm for most of the afternoon, the defense and special teams units — as quarterback Tom Brady acknowledged after the game — had to carry the load. They were able to do so in part because Bailey did his job well, and adapted quickly to the windy conditions in Philadelphia.
“I’d say at Stanford, not a lot of tough conditions out there — out there playing Arizona State and Arizona and UCLA and all,” said Belichick in his post-game press conference. “But he’s had a lot of challenging conditions out here, both in the spring and then as we’ve gone through the regular season. This year there have been days out there where it’s been cold, rainy, windy and I think he learned something every day.”
“There’s cross winds and there’s winds in your face and it’s kicking with the wind and all that. There’s challenges in every one of them,” he continued. “If you’re kicking with the wind, that’s an advantage to the punter, but handling the snap, which is coming back into the wind, wobbles and things like that... it’s a little tougher snap for the snapper. Anyway, he’s done a good job of adapting to the conditions.”
On the season and while playing in seven different NFL stadiums — including notoriously difficult places to kick such as Philadelphia, Buffalo and the Patriots’ home turf in Foxborough — Bailey has been impressive. He ranks sixth in the league with a net of 42.6 yards per punt and is rated fourth among all punters by Pro Football Focus, and also looked good both when it comes to his directional kicking and his hang-time.
However, Belichick was quick to point out that the rookie is still just that: “He’s still got a long way to go,” he said the game in Philadelphia. “I’m sure he’ll learn a lot more as the season goes along, but between the holding, the kick-offs and the punting in various conditions and certainly situational football. You know, the end-of-the-game punts and backed-up punts and plus 50-punts and the kickoffs and so forth. There were a lot of situations.”
“He’s a great kid. He works hard. He’s really played well for us this entire season and he’s been so valuable to this team and he proved it out there [on Sunday],” Belichick added. “He’s been great for us.”