T*steful Discourse: An Interview with Michael Dickson

Michael Dickson is the best punter in the NFL.

He’s also a pretty cool dude.

*Last December I reached out to Seattle’s All Pro punter, asking him for an interview. To my surprise and elation, he agreed and we kept in touch over the last couple months as he traveled to and from his home in Australia before gearing up for the forthcoming NFL season.

Michael answered every punting question I posed, as well as those that were unrelated, no matter how silly or inane. We joked about him being related to Ed Dickson and talked about how it felt to be drafted.

Most of all we talked punts. A lot of punts.*

How was your transition into the NFL out of school?

I think back to my days immediately after college. What would it have been like to have my future city chosen for me in such an abnormal way? And now add in the wrinkle of an expanse of water between Michael and his home. Already worrying about making the 53 man squad and showcasing your skills to the team, you’re moving to one of the most expensive parts of the country, and you’re doing it all so quickly.

MD: “In the season I kind of forget that I’m getting paid to punt. You know it’s weird, I’m so focused on punting well and trying to be the best in the league and trying to get the best out of myself that I kind of forget that I’m getting paid to do it. I was just happy to get paid going up from a thousand dollar a month stipend to get any more than that feels like amazing. Still got that lifestyle really; like that cheap college lifestyle. I’m kind of just trying to save it all. It doesn’t even feel like my money yet.”

Michael Dickson was the NFL’s best punter in 2018, if not the best punter in the world. All I could think at this point was how happy, excited, and driven he sounds to not just be punting, but to try and be the best punter in the world.

Everything else comes second.

Just how far can you kick that thing?

Before the interview itself, Mike B and I discussed potential questions for Mike D and it was immediately clear that we needed to ask one simple thing: What’s the longest punt Dicko has ever kicked?

MD: “There’s one, I think it was OTAs last year. I hit it and was like ‘Wow.’ I have it on my phone. It was going left, I was standing on the five and it landed I think on the five. It was like an 80 yard punt from the snap.”

Jared Stanger captured the punt in question*:

*Moved to YouTube for embedment purposes

He wasn’t kidding. The ball is snapped from the 18, he kicks it from the five, launches it through the sound barrier before reentering and landing all the way in Issaquah. Just a monster of a punt.

MD: “I had to save that one. I told my iPad to keep that one.”

Do Aussie rules provide an advantage for directional punting?

Punting is changing pretty rapidly in the NFL, though most fans might not notice. Directionality has become a hot topic in the punting community; if you can place the ball off to one side, you squeeze the field for the returner. Or if you find them cheating off to one side, as many do, you can even get the kick to bounce before they have an opportunity to field it.

The above graphic shows returner positioning in the NFL, courtesy of the NFL’s Big Data Bowl competition. Returners tend to cheat right because so many punters are right leg dominant and their kicks tend to go that same direction.

Did Michael’s background in Australian rules football experience give him an edge when it came to directional punting?

MD: “It’s hard to say that because you can look at guys like Morstead and Hekker and they’re pretty good at directional punting from what I’ve seen and they didn’t come from that background. I think it’s just the modern era. If you go back even 10 years, the lowest [average net punting distance in 2018] would be up in the top group back then. Back then, directional wasn’t too serious and it’s only become more important. It has to have an effect on [performance] because it shortens the room that [the returners] have. Like if I hit one down the middle, they can go left or right. But if I hit it to the right they can only go one way and we can kind of block them off with our coverage team.”

On Hekker’s ability to kick both to the left and right:

MD: “With Hekker he either punts right or he lines up like he’s going to punt right and then straightens his walk and then punts left. So there’s no tell. The returner can’t cheat because all of his punts look like they’re going to go right from his off step. But he’s aiming right going left with more hang time, so the returner can still get there.

“Last year we were messing around with a few ones where I was lining up right and then trying to hit a low one left. It looks like a shank, you hear the crowd go ‘ooooohhhh’ and all that. It looks like a shank but you see the returner cheating right and you try and hit it low left so that he can’t get to it and it’s going to either hit the ground and roll a little bit or just no return at all.”

Do we overvalue hang time?

During the 2018 season, Michael discussed via twitter the value of hang time when evaluating punts in order to grade punters for PFF. It was important to find out what he thought about hang time and if he believed that people — both fans and analysts — might overvalue it.

MD: “I saw one of [PFF’s] articles or something and it said they weighted hang time really heavily and I thought well if that’s the case what’s the point in having good hang time if the returner can catch it? Like, if I’m trying to kick it away from the returner the lower the hang time the better. It’s worse to have higher hang time. I have kicks where I’m trying to keep my hang time under a certain number. It doesn’t really make sense to have that at the start when there’s a lot of different kicks going around. I think I commented on it.”

He had.

MD: “But every time I kicked away from the returner and it was low hang, my grade would be really low. So you obviously didn’t take that too much into account when it came to the grade. The Philly punter did that a lot as well, Cam Johnston, he did that a lot as well. He hit a lot of low balls across the field with low hang and they didn’t grade him very highly.”

Just the other day, I had taken a look at which punters were performing best compared to league average from a similar field position. Whether you looked at adjusted EPA per attempt or net yardage, Johnston and Dickson were both near top of the league.

The above figure shows effective net distance for Michael Dickson, Cameron Johnston, and the entire NFL in 2018. Both Australian punters tended to largely outperform league average between their 15 to 40 yard lines, about 60 to 85 yards from the end zone. 

We now look at per kick efficiency. For each kick we can take expected points added (EPA) and adjust to not account for yards to go on punting downs. After all, the decision to punt is that of a coach, not a punter — well, except that one time against Detroit.

Using this adjusted EPA, we can look at each yard line and see league average expected EPA and measure how a punter performed at that exact yard line versus what we should expect. The higher up a punter is the more times they had to punt; the farther to the right the more they out performed league the league average adjusted epa per kick. 

Data for both of these charts come from nflscrapR, which can be found here.

MD: “I kind of rate net higher than everything; get good distance, get good direction, get good hang, and all of those normally end up with a good net [distance].”

While it may be true that net distance doesn’t capture everything, perhaps there is merit to Michael’s point that NFL fans and analysts look too closely at hang time. As punting changes, so too will the things that create a quality punt. If we see more low hang time directional punts in the league, perhaps we need to readjust the lens in which we view and grade punter performance.

What was it like to experience immediate success in the NFL?

Seattle’s choice to trade up and draft a punter in the fifth round was met with some criticism from outside the organization.

But to those familiar with Dickson’s performance at Texas, there were strong indications that his ability to change the complexion of the game was unique. When the Seahawks made the selection, I was ecstatic.

It’s one thing to come in and be good. It’s another thing entirely to make the Pro Bowl and be named First Team All Pro in your rookie season. What was it like for Michael to immediately be an elite NFL player?

MD: “I kind of attribute it to just getting as many reps as I can in the offseason. In the season I would be able to practice a lot and punt a lot because in the offseason I kind of lift a lot and smash my legs as much as I can.

“I don’t really watch film on my technique. I would rather just rep it out and feel it out; go over the technique a little bit but it’s more the feel. And I think that comes from my background in Aussie rules. In that sport if you’re trying to improve on a skill, we don’t really watch film. If you’re trying to improve a kick you don’t watch film. You do like 500 reps of that kick and work on it and improve on it bit by bit. That’s kind of what I base my training on is just getting those reps; getting that muscle memory; getting that feel; getting that hand to ball to foot connection.”

Can you punt a curveball?

It was imperative to ask Michael if he can kick a punt like a curveball; not just aligning right and then kicking left like Hekker, but putting enough spin on the ball to hook its trajectory from one side to the other.

MD: “I would have to point myself at the boundary. I’d have to catch the snap, face the boundary, and then do it. Kind of kick it across my body to get it to go right to left.”

“I’m working on this other one now where it’s just an improvement of those ones with low hang time. I didn’t hit those ones. It was effective, but not near as much as we should have done because I wasn’t too comfortable with it because I didn’t do it in college. I kind of just started doing it when I got to Seattle. So I didn’t want to go out there and shank it, didn’t want to shank a few. I’m working on that a lot this offseason. Probably going to be doing those a lot this next year. And also one where I can aim left and make it hook right. We did one last year but I didn’t hit one into the next and so I said ‘Well I’m not doing that anymore’ but this year we’ll probably do them as well.”

What’s your favorite type of punt?

MD: “Traditional spiral, probably, because it’s the hardest one. It’s the one I spend the most time on. It’s the one that requires everything to be in line the best. It’s probably my favorite one. The pooch kicks are pretty much second nature to me at this point.”

When will we see drop kick field goals?

With Seattle signing Jason Myers, perhaps the dream of a Dickson drop kick field goal is on hold. Still, I asked him about opportunities last season when it might have happened and didn’t. Was it a timing issue? Was the angle wrong? Just needed more practice?

MD: “I wanted to move the distance back a bit so then the timing would be sorted out. But it’s just a weird thing. There’s no real formation to base it off. We were trying to really figure it out as we went. There are just so many different things that can happen with it. I don’t really know what we’re doing moving forward, to be honest.”

“I’ve been messing around with field goals a little bit now because I’ve never kicked a field goal off the ground. That’s how I learned drop kicks. Just messing around with like five balls at practice at Texas. So I’m just kind of messing around with field goals and maybe in like three years, or you know, four, five, six, seven years I maybe someday might be able to try and do both. But right now, it’s not even close. That’s the long long long term goal.”

Do you have thoughts on out of bounds ball tracking?

With the NFL now tracking every player and ball for their NextGenStats department, Michael expressed emphatic opinions regarding the use of trackers to spot punted balls when they travel out of bounds:

MD: “One hundred percent yes. I always say that. They always short you as the punter. Or at least that’s what it feels like. It feels like they always short you. I remember in the Green Bay game I hit one and the side judge came running up and kept running up and marked it as like a 35 yard ball and I thought it should have been more like at least a 45. It’s just so hard for them to track it. That’s such a hard job when the ball is however high, going at that speed.”

Thanks to the NFL’s Big Data Bowl, we can measure the point where the ball leaves the field of play and compare it to where the side judge spots the ball. The data above is only a small subset of NFL punts, but it appears that the closer to the end zone that the ball leaves the field of play, the more it benefits the punting team. This could be, as Michael alluded to, because of how hard the ball is to track while running down the field.

No doubt the side judge has a hard job. And, as Michael would later point out, a ball landing near the boundary can be easy to spot correctly. But if the kick is caught by a gust of wind or has a bit of draw to it, what we ask of the side judge is basically impossible.

Dicko Mode

It was fascinating to sit down with Michael Dickson and pick his brain about punt types, formations, the importance of hang time, drop kicks, and a bevy of other topics. It was a chance to talk through so many things that I had wondered about when studying punting and its division of analytics. Do we overvalue the wrong things? Do we undervalue the right things? Is the position evolving?

We don’t always get to peel back the curtain and see not just what the players and coaches are doing when they approach a play, but why. Thank you to Michael for taking the time out of his offseason to interview and I hope we can make it happen again.

Until then, as always, #PuntToWin.