Punter Steve Weatherford had been a bit of a nomad after an impressive Collegian career booting for the University of Illinois. He was a first-team member of the All Big-Ten roster in 2004, his junior season, punting average ultimately ranking an impressive fourth in the nation. Despite these laudable credentials, the Indiana native went undrafted following his Senior season, eventually joining the Saints fresh from the free agent wire. Weatherford was New Orleans’ punter during their memorable initial campaign under new Head Coach Sean Payton, appearing in all sixteen of their contests. Weatherford’s production was solid for a rookie, middling overall, his 43.8 yards per punt placing him fifteenth in the League.
Weatherford’s tenure with the Saints would conclude in October of 2008, whereupon he was released, eventually signing with the Kansas City Chiefs to replace their injured starter Dustin Colquitt. When his services were no longer required, Weatherford was dumped by his second team in under a month. But another injury to one of his contemporaries would reopen the window of opportunity, as Weatherford was tabbed by Jacksonville to replace their highly regarded punter Adam Podlesh, who had been placed on injured reserve.
Podlesh would recover from his injured knee in time to challenge his replacement during Jacksonville’s 2009 training camp. Another AFC team was holding a punting duel at the same time, the Jets searching, seemingly in vain, for a reliable leg to provide support for their touted defense. When Podlesh was declared the victor over Weatherford, the Jets swooped in immediately, inking the latter and installing him as their punter.
Weatherford’s 42.0 yard average wasn’t exactly eye-popping, but he provided stability at a position which could have hurt a team relying on a conservative offensive approach. The first year Jet made waves after a minor heart condition prevented him from suiting up against the Bengals in the playoffs. Kicker Jay Feely was pressed into duty and responded admirably, firing off a few respectable punts and keeping the Bengals from exploiting an obvious deficiency.
Feely would not return to the Jets in 2010, replaced by Nick Folk, who had seen his previously elite level skills disintegrate after a hip injury ruined his mechanics. Folk was a major question mark back in August, Weatherford a forgotten man. Both have turned in superb seasons so far, and it’s hard to determine which has been more of a surprise. The strong-legged Weatherford has racked up a career best 44.9 yardage average, while the newcomer Folk was an absolute key in the Jets’ emotional victory against Brett Favre and the Vikings on Monday Night Football.
Weatherford just may have found himself a home at the Meadowlands, overcoming his three team odyssey in 2008. But he must be getting asked a lot about his teammate, the resurgent Folk, jokingly saying, “Nick Folk is the best kicker ever,” before being asked a question on Friday afternoon in the Jets locker-room.
Weatherford proceeded to give fellow Special Teamer Marquice Cole a huge amount of credit for his strong season thus far. “Marquise [is getting] down there, forcing fair catches,” said Weatherford. “I usually talk to him, he’s my go to guy before every punt… I try to let him know what I’m doing with the ball.”
Weatherford continued, explaining the vital interactions between him and Cole, a gifted sideline gunner. “We’ll have a general punt every time we go out there. If I feel like it’s a good returner and I need put it even more outside than usual, I’ll let him know, you don’t want him going outside if the ball’s going inside.” Weatherford has grown from his pro experience, and spoke about necessary rites of passage among punters. “Over the course of my career in the NFL, I feel like everyone kind of goes through learning how to control the ball more. When I was in college I could hit the ball just as far and as high as I could now but I wasn’t as consistent and I couldn’t control the ball. Like I could hit the ball sixty yards downfield but now I’m able to hit the ball sixty yards down the field down the sideline.”
The maturing punter cited many reasons for his improvement. “ Its a combination of everything, preparation in the offseason, game preparation…. And routine. When one thing is lacking you’re not going to perform as good as you’re capable of doing. I drive my wife crazy because I have to go to bed at the same time every night. Make sure I’m getting X amount of sleep. With my diet at home everything is so consistent during the season, that kind of drives her nuts, until she gets back in the season groove.”
He also shared his thoughts on the new Stadium, and is well aware comfortable climates will soon be evaporating. “I love it. It’s really tough to say right now because it was easier to punt in the old meadowlands at this time too, as it got colder and windier there’s a degree of difficulty. But I think we had a decisive edge over people [in bad conditions] last season.”
Weatherford’s valued teammate, the aforementioned Cole, offered his opinion on the importance of sound communication among punters and coverage aces. “It’s huge,” Cole said. “Because if he comes up to me, and tells me, this one I’m going to go to the right, go to the left, I might have to go straight down the middle, ok I need to release this way, or if I release this other way I need to know that the ball’s going to get on me. I need to know where he’s aiming. That’s where the ball’s going.”
Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan was positively ebullient about Weatherford. “He’s been punting great. It’ll be interesting to see how he punts in that thin air,” wondered Ryan. “That air actually makes a difference, it really does. He’s been terrific. It’s funny, because I remember last year, to sit back and say,’ Man, we’ve got a good football team. We have no punter.’ I mean, we had no punter.” Ryan accounted for his team’s good fortune. “We kind of lucked in. We were looking at Jacksonville, they had two good punters, one kid they had drafted the year before. They kept the other guy, we got Steven, he’s just done a great job. I’m sure they look at the numbers, all that other stuff, I know Steve’s punting better then the other kid… we kind of lucked into that. He’s really done a great job.”
Ryan continued, ultimately commenting on the unique nature of his team. “He had a little surgery in the offseason, so hopefully he can punt in the postseason after missing that Bengals game or whatever. … but he’s really doing well. The guy takes great care of himself. This football team is funny. Because Kickers and punters are generally different kind of guys. They don’t fit in a lot of times with your team. But it’s just the opposite here. Our guys… you can tell… that the players all go out with Steve and Nick. So it’s kind of a unique situation with our kickers.”
This camaraderie just may aid the quality communication. “Anytime you cross the 50, Steve’s come up with a new punt,” said Ryan approvingly. “It’s like a kickoff almost. We’ll drop the nose back down and almost kick it end over end, and he’ll communicate where he’s going with the ball, and Cole did a great job of downing that ball inside the five,” said Ryan, referring to a specific play against the Vikings.
When a team talented as the Jets is also excelling on Special Teams, watch out. It reflects very well on the entire organization, from the General Manager and Coach who sought and discovered quality depth, to the specialists, one and all, kickers, snappers, holders. Weatherford just might be the difference this Sunday, launching footballs into the thin Denver atmosphere.
Rex on Revis:
Obviously, the big news of the day involved Darrelle Revis getting pulled over on his way to practice for careless driving. Rex commented on the situation.
“First off, when I was aware of it, he was late to a team meeting. That was when he told me about the ticket. Really, we can all take notice of it. Obviously, you have to slow down. He was running late, [but] that’s not an excuse. You’d hate to see anybody be careless where you put someone else at risk and put yourself at risk. That’s a reminder for all of us.”
Ryan also provided some injury news.
“The guy that is listed as questionable is Darrelle [Revis]. Everybody else is probable. [Jim] Leonhard, [Nick] Mangold, Brandon Moore, Calvin Pace and [Jamaal] Westerman are all probable. Guys that were limited in practice today [are] Darrelle and Calvin Pace. Everyone else was full.”
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