By Mike Wise
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
One of the basic credos in sports journalism is: When covering the NFL, never write about the punters. Except punter's wives, mothers, agents and kids mentored by Ray Guy, pretty much no one cares.
So you can imagine the elation when I phoned The Post sports department yesterday, begging to chronicle the throw-down in Ashburn over who gets to boot the ball on fourth and long for the Washington Redskins this season.
Editor: "Uh, what about Billy McMullen , the Virginia kid? He could be the last receiver if Jim Zorn keeps 12."
Editor: "No? Stuart Schweigert? You know, the safety that came over from the Raiders?"
Even Derrick Frost wishes you would pick another topic.
"Usually when you get interviewed as a punter, it's either, 'I guess things aren't going well, they drafted a punter,' or, 'The team just played terrible and there was no one else to interview but you because you punted 12 times,' " said Frost, Washington's punter the past three seasons. "Neither one of those are good scenarios."
The former happened to Frost this offseason. The Redskins used a sixth-round pick on Durant Brooks, a square-jawed kid from Georgia Tech who punted a football 77 yards in a game last year and averaged 45.3 yards per kick, an ACC record. They enter the preseason in a dead heat.
The difference between other training-camp battles and theirs -- and why you really need to keep reading about punters -- is that either Frost or Brooks will be out of a job by the end of August. They're not trying to be a third receiver like Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas, or hoping to be a third cornerback like Leigh Torrence or Justin Tryon, in case Carlos Rogers isn't healthy enough to start the year. Their playing time might be reduced, but those players all get paid.
Loser of the punt battle goes home and waits for a call that might not come.
It doesn't happen very often that a punter is cut the last preseason game and he ends being picked up Week 1 for another team.
"Usually a month, halfway into the season is when you get picked up -- if you do," Frost said. "Kicking and punting is by far the most competitive situation in any preseason. It's head-to-head competition. The stats are there. It's not qualitative like other positions. There might be seven safeties, but they'll keep five."
The lack of camaraderie among teammates took Brooks awhile to get used to when he arrived for minicamp in May. "Derrick was used to the competition, but it took a little while for me to get used to the fact that I've come in to try and take his job."
Brooks since has received advice from friends, who told him: "You can't try to be best friends or think about how he feels. You got to protect yourself and work hard every day knowing there is no backup for this position."
"It's either going to be me or him."
At Georgia Tech, Brooks won the Ray Guy Award as the best punter in the nation. But then, he had an inside track. The Raiders great, whose camps Brooks attended and who mentored him growing up, was a family friend in Georgia. Guy, of course, launched the football heavenward like no one. Of the 1,049 times he punted in his career, not one was returned for a touchdown.
But let's not forget Frost's back story, how he tried out for four teams out of little division I-AA Northern Iowa before catching on in Washington in 2005. Last season, he kicked a career-long punt of 64 yards against Miami. He kept Devin Hester to no more than a measly 12-yard return on a cold, miserable night in December at FedEx Field, kicking the ball safely out of bounds four times in a game the reeling-at-the-time Redskins needed.
But he's also been inconsistent at times, which led to what he called a "shocking" development in the offseason -- an NFL team actually drafting a punter. The last time Washington drafted a punter was 1993. Ed Bunn was a good tale, having been a repo man in college. But the third-round pick never made it out of camp and ostensibly went back to repossessing automobiles for a living.
"I've given three, good years of service to this team," Frost said. "It hasn't been perfect, but it hasn't been terrible either. I don't think I've ever really ever cost us."
But he also acknowledged, "I obviously put myself in this position. I blame myself for putting doubt in their head for my long-term stability on this team. If I had solidified that with them, they wouldn't have drafted anybody no matter how many draft picks they had."
Luckily for Brooks, Frost does not treat competition like dirt, the way former punter Todd Sauerbrun did. Described as "cagey" (read: a cheater who would do anything to keep his job) by fellow kickers and punters, Sauerbrun was called upon to place kick for the Carolina Panthers in 2004 after starter John Kasay's leg injury. Sauerbrun refused to kick unless he was reimbursed for fines he incurred when he was overweight.
At the time, Sauerbrun refused to allow the Panthers to bring either one of the Gramatica place-kicking brothers in for a tryout.
"I'm not going to go out of my way to help anybody but at the same time I'm not going to go out of my way to hurt anybody's chances," Frost said. "I'm an honest person. And it's kind of like golf. It's a gentlemen's competition."
Indeed, punting is not blood sport -- unless you kicked at Northern Colorado in 2006. That's when backup punter Mitch Cozad ambushed and stabbed starter Rafael Mendoza one night in a parking lot, leaving Mendoza with a deep gash in his kicking leg.
Convicted of second-degree assault, Cozad was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking out his rival. What's more, he did not get the starting job.
"I'm not going to resort to that," Brooks said, chuckling. "That's unbelievable, isn't it? And that's just college. This is your job when you get to the NFL."
Added Frost: "It's not a personal issue, but I think we both know we're trying to win a job here. He happens to be the guy in my way, and I happen to be the guy in his way."
Go ahead and obsess over an under-the-radar return man, find that fifth linebacker and call him a diamond in the rough this preseason. But remember, the only steel-cage match being waged in training camp is the booming battle of right feet.
Two punters enter. One leaves.
Who doesn't want to read about that?