METAIRIE — When Thomas Morstead takes the field, usually something very bad — or very good — has just happened to the Saints.
The very bad: the offense being forced to punt, which is Morstead’s primary job with the team, one he’s doing at an NFL-record pace.
The very good: the offense has just scored, and it’s time for Morstead’s secondary responsibility — kicking off, another task in which he excels.
To Morstead then, it’s up to him to either convert the bad into good by flipping the field or to make sure something bad doesn’t offset the good that’s just happened.
“I’m first and foremost a punter, but I won’t lie,” Morstead said. “When we’ve just scored and the Dome is rocking and I can go out there and hit a touchback, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Thanks in large part to kickoffs being moved from the 30 to the 35, Morstead has enjoyed that feeling quite a bit this year.
Of his 49 kickoffs, 45 have reached the end zone. That’s 92 percent, up from 66 percent in his first three seasons and better than the league average of 88 percent.
Last Sunday against Atlanta, Morstead was 6-for-6 into the end zone, with none returned.
That may reduce the drama but, as Morstead says, possibly recalling Randall Cobb’s 108-yarder in last year’s opener at Green Bay, “If you put the ball through the end zone, the other team can’t beat you on that play.”
However, as Morstead pointed out, he is first and foremost a punter.
It’s where he’s more-than-justifying the six-year $21.9 million contract extension the Saints gave him this summer.
“We call him, ‘The Leg,’” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “A punter like that can be a really big weapon for you.”
Nowhere was that more evident than Sunday with 37 seconds left and the Saints were at their 4 after a goal line stand.
In perhaps the most pressure situation of his career, Morstead delivered a 55-yard kick to the Falcons’ 41 where return man Harry Douglas was promptly dropped by Jed Collins with 10 more yards added on for holding.
Four plays later, the Saints had a 31-27 victory.
“Most of the offensive and defensive players get at least three or four times a game when they can make a big difference,” Morstead said. “A punter might get that chance three or four times a year.
“That was pretty awesome.”
Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon agreed.
“That’s certainly not the optimal place you want to punt the ball,” said. “But Thomas has done that. He works at that.
“He just has a confidence level that he wants to be in that position at the end of the game, probably no different than Drew Brees feels that way. I think he relishes that opportunity and he has done well.”
But Morstead is hardly a one-kick wonder.
Through nine games, his net punting average is 45.4 yards per kick.
That’s 1.41 yards better than the league record set last season by San Francisco’s Andy Lee.
Morstead’s 43.11 net average of a year ago is No. 3 all time with Shane Lechler of Oakland, whom the Saints play, second at 43.85 in 2009.
The punting record that needs no explaining, Sammy Baugh’s 51.40 average in 1940, is within reach.
Morstead’s current average is 51.0 and raising that by just a yard per kick for the rest of the season would give him the record, although Miami’s Brandon Fields is also threatening the mark with a 51.2 average.
“It’s hard enough to think about averaging 50 yards in one game (which Morstead has done six times this season after doing so seven in 2011), much less for the whole season,” Morstead said.
“You just play the game the best you can and at the end of the season to count up the gifts.”
What makes Morstead’s punting number even more impressive is that he goes less for sheer distance than placement, trying to get the ball as near out-of-bounds as possible without sacrificing yardage, thus cutting down opponents’ return options.
Only once this season, at Denver, has an opponent began a series in Saints territory after a Morstead punt and nobody’s made it past midfield on a kickoff return.
“He makes our jobs a lot easier,” said Martez Wilson, who is on both the punting and kickoff units. “We know the direction he’s punting in and he’s going to give us at least 40 yards of coverage area to catch up to the returner. And being on kickoff coverage is about the easiest job on the team.”
Concentrating on the net average is an attitude Morstead said he’s developed since he came into the league in 2009 as a fifth-round draft pick, although both it and his gross number have improved each season.
“You start learning that there are better ways of doing things like in the way you take better care of your body,” said Morstead, who, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, could easily pass for a position player.
Toward that end, over the past two years Morstead has developed his own training regimen that includes strength and conditioning exercises not unlike those done by a gymnast on the rings complete with handstands.
“It teaches you to use your whole body,” he said. “I don’t know if any other punters are doing this and I don’t want to give away any of my secrets. But I’d like to one day be thought of as a great punter who stayed in this league for a long time and changed the game is played.”
There’s one other thing Morstead would like to accomplish.
Although he’s already achieved his place in Saints history with an onsides kick in the Super Bowl, Morstead’s never gotten the chance to attempt a fake punt — at least not in the NFL.
In 2008, as a senior at SMU, Morstead went 34 yards on just such a play against Tulane in a game played in the Superdome.
“If we had something like that in our playbook, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “But if it’s ever needed, I’m ready to be called on.”
The Saints visit the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Kickoff is set for 3:05 p.m.
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