Redskin punter Mike Bragg is off to one of the best starts of his 10-year National Football League career.
His nine punts inside the opposition 10-yard line are one more than any other NFL punter has kicked inside the 20. After four games, Bragg's 36.8-yard net average ranks him second in the league behind Oakland's Ray Guy, who is at 37.0
Whenever the Redskins and the Cowboys resume their NFC East rivalry, as they will Sunday at Texas Stadium, punting is a major factor in the game.
"Special-teams play is always important," Dallas coach Tom Landry said this week. "But against the Redskins, it's even more important because they put so much emphasis on it. Field position will decide this game."
Dallas, and Charlie Waters in particular, is the best in the best in th NFL at blocking punts. Waters had two in the playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams last season, two in the 1977 preseason and another against the Cardinals on Sunday.
That may not seem phenomenal, but in four weeks of the 1977 regular season, only six punts have been blocked.
Despite Brag's performance, everything is not hunky-dory with the Redskin punting game and special teams coach Paul Lanham is working overtime this week to correct the problems.
"I'm pleased, but not satisfied." Lanham said, "We've had a couple of lapses on protection that need to be emphasized. Dallas had been doing the best job of blocking punts in th league during the preseason and regular season."
"My job is to protect and then cover," said Danny Buggs, who will line up opposite Waters. "Sometimes the opponent doesn't get the block on him. Wt don't want to let that happen this week."
"He'll (Waters) see a mistake," said Gerard Williams, who lines up on the left end next to BUggs on punts, "and he'll just sneak on in there. You've got to make surt you block him every time. He'll try to block one on his own."
Although the Redskins lead the league in punt'return defense - 33 yards, or 1.2 yards per punt - Lanham said tackling could be better. And coach George Allen pointed out that the Redskins rank only 20th in the NFL in punt-returns average.
Nevertheless, Bragg has turned the coffin-corner kick into a fine art.%
The league keeps statistics on punts inside the 20-yard line. Lanham demands a higher standard; he keeps track of kicks inside the 10.
"Inside the 20 is fine," said Lanham, "but we set our goal inside the 10, which is attainable. Actually I don't think inside the 20 is much of a challenge."
Bragg has punted the ball inside the opposite 10-yard line eight times in the past two games.
" I'm not close to perfecting it at all," Bragg said. "The ball's been around midfield a lot.There have been some balls I kicked that should have been inside the 20. I've shanked a couple."
But, Bragg acknowledged, the risk of a periodic shank is not as much a negative as the starts the opposition out from near its own goal line.
"If you get the ball out inside the 10, it gets pressure on their offense," he said, "and it gives your defense an emotional life."
Lanham said the reason that Bragg is punting so much better to the conners this year is simply practice since the NFL strategy on punting changed when the league changed the return rule four years ago allowing only the outside lineman to go downfield at the snap of the ball.
The old technique was to hang a high punt to let teammates get down-field in time to down it. Now since only two players can get a head start before the ball is punted the strategy is to aim for the 10-yard line.
In 1974, the first year of the new rule, Bragg had only three punts inside the 10. The next year it was eight and it rose to 10 last season. At the current pace he will have almost 30 punts inside the 10 this season. Bragg compared the corner punt to the chip shot in golf, because it takes both accuracy and touch.
"You aim at the 10 to give yourself a margin of error," Bragg aid. "It's best to have the ball go out of bounds in the air. What's the ball, an oblique body is consistent enough to say, 'I can make it bounce left eight out of 10 times."