Aussie punter Ben Graham having remarkable season for Arizona Cardinals
By Bob Baum (CP) – 10 hours ago
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona's punter from Down Under is on a roll, one that leaves the football near the opponent's goal-line with uncanny consistency.
Entering Sunday's home game against St. Louis, Ben Graham has 62 consecutive punts without a touchback, 32 of them inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The ball has landed like a perfect nine-iron shot to the green, either bouncing straight up or a few yards backward.
"It's amazing because I think so few times do you think of a punter as a weapon," quarterback Kurt Warner said.
The six-foot-five, 235-pound Australian said he's learned to kick that way, end-over-end with just the right distance, since he started to walk, growing up in the heart of a region that loves Australian rules football.
Graham excelled at the rugged sport, playing 12 seasons at the professional level in Melbourne - all with the popular team Geelong - before retiring in 2004.
"It's a pretty brutal sport," he said, "but I came out of it with my body intact."
In 2005, he signed with the New York Jets, at 31 years and 13 days, the second-oldest player to make his debut in an NFL game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
It was not an easy adjustment.
"I didn't realize all the rules when I first got here. I didn't know that punting was a bad thing," Graham said. "I wanted to punt all the time. I was disappointed when I didn't get to punt."
He spent three seasons with the Jets before being released in September of 2008, then played one game with New Orleans before being cut again.
Disillusioned, Graham thought about taking his wife and three children back to Australia, but with his children enrolled in school, the family decided to hold on for one more season.
Graham needed a job, and Arizona needed a punter after releasing Dirk Johnson late in the season.
Graham signed with the Cardinals last Dec. 1, destined to play a significant role in the team's unlikely run to the Super Bowl.
In the first round of the playoffs against Atlanta, Graham had three punts inside the Falcons' 10-yard line, one leading to a safety. Despite a sore groin, he landed five punts inside the 20 in the NFC championship game against Philadelphia, including one that went out of bounds at the Eagles' seven-yard line with nine seconds to play.
The first Australian to play in the Super Bowl, Graham had three punts inside the Pittsburgh 20, one at the two-yard line that resulted in another safety.
"When we brought him in last year and he became our punter, that was one of the things that we were greatly surprised, pleasantly surprised, that he was so good at doing," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "and he's obviously taken it to another level this year."
Graham was rewarded with a two-year contract with the Cardinals, and it has been money well spent.
In last Sunday's 31-24 win at Detroit, he punted seven times for a 50.3-yard average. Three landed inside the 20.
He attributes his success to giving up worrying so much about technique.
"The more you try to perfect something, sometimes it can take away from what you're actually trying to get done," Graham said. "So once I realized that and got back to just using my natural ability, I was able to become more consistent, which is what I always strive for."
For Warner, Graham is added security.
"You don't feel like you have to make a big play and score every time," Warner said. "You get around midfield and third down and you don't have to throw there - throw the ball away and you know that you're going to flip the field position, that they're going to be pinned back in a tough situation."
Overall, Graham has had 37 of 76 punts (49 per cent) land inside the 20 this season. He is five shy of the NFL record of 42 set by Andy Lee of San Francisco in 2007.
His distance is among the best, too.
His 47.5-yard average is third in the league, behind Lee (47.9) and Shane Lechler of Oakland (51.5).
"It was only this time last year that I was out of a job," Graham said, "so I'm just enjoying a good ride."
He's had some outstanding games this season - from memory I think he and his coverage unit nearly won a game for them against the Titans when they pinned them at the 1 yard line with a couple of minutes to go in the game, but the Cards defence went to prevent and couldn't get the stop and the Titans drove the length of the field to claim victory.
However, when assessing punters one has to remember where they play - the Jets will never have a statistically great punter while they play in the Meadowlands.