Thomas Morstead was disappointed that he didn’t break the NFL record for net punting last year, but he didn’t take it so hard that he let it affect his performance this season.
Through two games, he has been almost flawless, pinning opponents inside their 20 on six of his seven punts and getting touchbacks on nine of his 10 kickoffs.
So much for any hangover effect from the way 2012 ended. He entered the season finale against Carolina with a net of 44.4, higher than the NFL mark of 43.99 set by San Francisco’s Andy Lee in 2011, and exited with an average of 43.2, falling less than a tenth of yard below Lee for even the 2012 net-punting title. The record-killer came the last time he punted, when he had to push Armanti Edwards out of bounds at the New Orleans 12 after a 69-yard return midway through the fourth quarter.
“It was a learning experience for me,” Morstead said. “That should never be my focus, and it was made my focus by quite a few people, so it was hard to not think about it. That was a thorn in my side all year.”
With the razor-thin edge of the Saints’ wins against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, it is arguable that Morstead’s sharpness has made the difference between a 2-0 and 0-2 start.
Three of his punts were downed at the 9-, 6- and 4-yard lines, helping the revitalized New Orleans defense hold the Falcons to 17 points and the Bucs to 14 (seven on offense).
His teammates certainly appreciate his precision. Linebacker Curtis Lofton labeled him the “top punter in this league” and a huge help to the defense. Cornerback Corey White helped out by catching a perfect pooch punt at the Tampa Bay 4 before it bounced last Sunday.
“Those are hidden yards that you don’t see on paper,” White said. “Any time you can pin an offense back and make them work 95 yards for a touchdown, that’s big time for the defense.”
With former LSU star Patrick Peterson returning punts for Arizona, the Saints’ opponent this Sunday, Morstead’s performance could be huge again. Peterson tied an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns in 2011 and, although he has not reached the end zone since, the Saints are wary of him.
“The punter’s job is the first extension of the defense,” Morstead said. “Specifically regarding Patrick Peterson, he’s a way that they can win the game. It’s our punt team’s job to make sure he’s not a factor in that way.”
History has shown Morstead will do everything possible to accomplish that goal, before and during the game. Although he has tapered off the amount of time he kicks balls during the week as he gets older — former Saints kicker John Carney gave him that advice when he was rookie in 2009 — his professionalism has wowed tackle Zach Strief.
“He works as hard as you can imagine a punter working,” Strief said. “The perception of his job is you just walk out there and punt, but it’s a 60-hour-a-week job for him. His success is not an accident. He’s not just a guy that woke up and can kick a football.”
Morstead credits his father for his work ethic. John Morstead was a championship professional road cyclist, winning six state titles in Texas and Louisiana in Morstead’s estimation, appearing at U.S. nationals more than 10 times and beating Lance Armstrong more than once in Texas races.
Born in Lake Charles, Morstead’s father moved to Argentina when he was 1, then spent 10 years in England from age 9 to 19 while setting cycling records there before returning to the United States. His competitiveness and zeal for his sport rubbed off on his son.
“When he was done being a pro and he was an amateur, he still just loved the sport and busted his butt every day to go out and train on his own,” Morstead said. “It’s easy to work hard when you love what you’re doing.”
Morstead’s net average after two games is 43.1 yards, an early indication he will flirt with the NFL record again. That number rose in each of his first four years, going from 36.0 to 38.4 to 43.1 to 43.2.
“The goal is to net better than we did the previous year,” he said. “We’ll see if that’s in the cards or not. We have great players all around on our punt team, and I know I can do a good job, so no doubt I can improve on last year.”