Since Bill Belichick took over as the New England Patriots’ head coach in 2000, the team has employed numerous punters with eight of them actually appearing in a regular season or playoff game for the team. When looking at the names on the list, one thing stands out: six of them are or were left-footed kickers. Those six men punted in the vast majority of Patriots games over the last nineteen seasons: 338 of a possible 344.
The other six games belong to the two men who were signed by Belichick’s Patriots despite being right-footed punters. Brooks Barnard appeared in one contest for the team in 2003 — his first and only NFL game. Todd Sauerbrun, meanwhile, was brought on board in 2006 after both Josh Miller and Ken Walter had to be placed on season-ending injured reserve; he played the other five right-footed-punter games in New England this century.
The number will increase substantially this season and possibly beyond, though. With the Patriots releasing incumbent Ryan Allen — a leftie who appeared in 112 games for New England and won three Super Bowls with the team — the way is free for rookie Jake Bailey to take over the role. Bailey winning the training camp competition, of course, can be considered a break with what almost feels like a tradition in New England.
After all, the rookie will become the team’s first right-footed opening day punter since Tom Tupa in 1998. When the Patriots under Belichick had a choice, they exclusively wanted left-footed guys. But why? According to Belichick himself, it is merely a coincidence — after all, he also employed Tupa when he was working as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and two right-footed punters during his tenure as the New York Giants’ special teams coach.
The Patriots’ dynasty, however, is not built on coincidence. Even though Belichick won’t tell his reasoning behind his apparent preference for lefties, there are theories about it. One is the number of left-footed punters in the NFL: only roughly a third of them kicks with the left foot, which means that returnmen theoretically have less experience fielding punts that are spinning in a counterclockwise direction from the kicker’s view.
Less experience, of course, could create a bigger chance of error when it comes to muffing kicks. For a head coach and organization to leave no stone unturned in order to gain an advantage on game day, this thought process certainly seems plausible. There are other theories as well, however, and one of the most intriguing was presented by one of New England’s former punters, Zoltan Mesko, just last year.
“That stadium is kind of made for lefties,” Mesko — a left-footer playing 54 games in New England between 2010 and 2013 — told Sports Illustrated when talking about the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium. Mesko was speaking about the wind currents entering the field from the open north end of the stadium and how they could effect a punt. The spin of left-footed punters is less susceptible to getting impacted by those currents, said Mesko at the time.
Could it be possible that the Patriots put this into account when picking their punters? Most certainly. But how Bailey fits into all of this remains a question. Maybe Belichick does not see any benefits in having left-footed punters after all, or no longer thinks they bring an advantage to his team in terms of spin or battling the Foxborough winds. Or maybe he and his staff just see enough potential in the rookie to make a switch.
Whatever the reasons may be, one thing is certain: a new era of punting — and maybe kicking off, something Bailey did regularly at Stanford — has reached New England. Now all that is left to be done for Patriots fans is to hope that it will be similarly successful as the age of the left-footed punter was.