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Is Donnie Jones Punting Worse This Year? (a statistical geek-out)

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Last year, free agent Donnie Jones was the only bright light on a shaky special teams unit. Now, in some ways he looks like the only shaky piece of the NFL's best squad. Let's crunch some serious numbers to see if that is accurate.

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Rob Carr

Chip Kelly has put a lot of effort into improving special teams since he took the job as Philadelphia's head coach, but in his first year the results were not that striking.  The unit ranked 19th in Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings, up from 28th in 2013 but still below average.

Punter Donnie Jones was the ST star, though.  Mat McBriar only landed 13 punts inside the 20 in 2012; Jones placed 33 in the red zone.

This year, the Eagles' hard work on teams has finally paid off, as they are the unquestioned best unit in the NFL.  By some measures, though, Donnie Jones is now the weak link.

His gross punt average (before return) is 29th in the league, behind Brad Wing (who he beat out for the Eagles job), and he already has as many touchbacks (5) as he did in all of 2013.

Jones' longest punt is only 61 yards, tied for 21st in the league. Last year he had punts of 70, 69 and 64 yards. On the other hand, he has 3 punts under 35 yards from Eagles territory, including a 31 yard effort from his own 10 with 2:29 left that gave Washington a great shot at tying that game with a field goal. (Luckily the LOLskins went four-and-out.)

Is Donnie Jones having a real drop-off, or is this a statistical fluke?

Punting statistics are relatively primitive, as Chris Kluwe noted last summer.  The quality of your coverage unit, the place you kick from and the game situation all affect the real value of a kick in ways that statistics don't capture.

Kickers on a bad team will tend to have longer gross kicking averages but won't get as many touchbacks since they kick from deeper in their own territory.  If they have to angle kicks or even force it out of bounds to prevent their inept coverage units from giving up a touchdown, the numbers are twisted even more.

My twitter correspondent @achillesheald and writer @LesBowen pointed out that the Eagles often kick from good field position, aiming to pin their opponents down by the goal-line:

The problem is that none of the major statistics sources track the yard line that a punt is kicked from.  So I constructed my own stats in order to make a more accurate comparison, logging every punt and its starting yard line based on ESPN's play by play logs (and checked against NFL Rewind where ambiguous).

Basically, I broke down punts into two categories -- those kicked from past the Eagles' 40 yard line, and those at or behind it.  This corresponds roughly to the line where you boom your kicks as far as possible, versus aiming to down it near the goal line. Or put it in golf terms: behind the 40 you need a driver, past it you're putting.

I also compared this year so far to the last 8 regular season games of 2013.  Why not all year? Because the Eagles were not the same team in the first half of last season.  Chip Kelly and his coaches were drastically overhauling the roster and schemes, and it showed in results.  The team was 3-5 over the first 8 games, and 7-1 the rest of the way.

As you might suspect, punts are very different from opposite sides of the 40.  From there forward, essentially every kick -- 21 of 22 this year -- is a touch back or downed inside the 20.  (This is a testament to the strength of the Eagles' coverage unit.)  Behind that line, though, only 5 of 25 punts were.

If you moved the line back to the 35, you would separate the touch backs and inside-20s entirely; last year the 39 yard line was that divider.  (Unless I say otherwise, all numbers are for 2014).

Punts from the 40 or behind were over nine yards longer, an average of 48.6 yards gross (versus 39.2). Returns were longer on sub-40 punts (7.0 vs. 4.5 yards) too though, despite the fact that I counted a touchback as a 20-yard "return." Fair catches were ten times more common on the shorter fields (46% vs. 4%), presumably because you can't outkick your coverage.

The main punting statistic besides distance is the number of punts placed inside the 20.  That number distorts the situation pretty easily, though, even without looking at where you kick from.  For example, Donnie Jones' defenders note that he is 2nd in the NFL for punts inside the 20, with 21.  True, but the Eagles have a lot of punts (46) this year, and leader Colton Schmidt of Buffalo has even more (55).

Meanwhile, the Ravens' Sam Koch has 19 punts inside the 20-yard-line out of just 35 kicks and leads the league when ranked by percentage instead of raw numbers. Donnie Jones is still impressive (4th) but Schmidt drops to 7th.

As you might suspect, where you kick from has A LOT to do with kicks inside the 20. Behind the 41-yard-line, only 16.3% of Donnie Jones' punts are downed in the red zone; past the 40, that jumps to 77.3%.

So what about our original question -- is Donnie Jones punting worse this year?

The Eagles are definitely kicking more from short fields in 2014. The average yard line punted from has jumped fully five yards from the latter half of 2013, going from the 33.5 to the 38.7, and the percent past the 40 has risen from 40% to 47%. The Birds have kicked from midfield or enemy territory 14 times already this year, vs. only 5 in the comparable period last year.

Looking just at shorter field kicks, though, some change in quality is noticeable. 77.3% of those punts (17/22) were placed inside the 20 this year, but in 2013 it was 87.5% (14/16). On the other hand the number pinned down inside the 10 has jumped from 4 (25%) to 7 (32%).

The biggest deterioration has been the growth in touchbacks.  Last year, Jones was phenomenal, with only one touchback in the final 8 games of the year (and that was kicked from the 39).  He already has five touchbacks in 2014.

What does this all mean, then?

The Eagles are punting from further down field this year, and it's affecting the punting results.  Donnie Jones has a lot more touchbacks, but he is also pinning the ball deep inside the 10 yard line more often. Given the strength of the Eagles' defense this year, this looks more like a high risk/high reward strategy than any deterioration in Jones' skill.

After all, the Birds already have two touchdowns on blocked punts deep in enemy territory.  Creating more opportunities for punts out of the end zone is a shrewd strategy, and worth a few touchbacks.