Former NFL punter Craig Colquitt was incredulous the first time he saw his son, Dustin, try a rugby-style punt in a game for the Chiefs.
The Colquitts are the NFL’s First Family of Punting. Craig spent eight years in the NFL, earning Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977-78. A cousin, Jimmy, punted for the Seattle Seahawks in 1985.
They punted the old-school way. Kick it hard, kick it deep, and aim for the coffin corner when close enough to the opponents’ end zone.
But here was Dustin, in his fourth year with the Chiefs in 2008, dropping the ball straight down to his left foot as opposed to a level drop, and hitting the bottom third of the ball end over end, rugby style.
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“He said, ‘What is that?’” Dustin recalled. “‘I don’t know about that punt … it’s weird.’”
But when Craig Colquitt saw the result, a fair catch at the 10 instead of a touchback, the patriarch of punting understood there was a method to this new-age style of kicking.
“It was not something that he liked until he started seeing the results,” Colquitt said, “and how it was working out for us.”
The results continue to be impressive for Dustin, a Pro Bowl selection in 2012 and one of the unsung weapons on the Chiefs’ roster.
When measuring Colquitt’s impact on a game, forget about yards per punt. Think field position. Colquitt dictates it with the way his left-footed rugby punts bounce and spin dead on the field for the coverage unit to down inside the opponents’ territory, go out of bounds (preventing returns), or force return men to make fair catches.
“The biggest thing our punt team does is cover punts well and take return guys out of the game,” Colquitt said. “Our goal is to have a high net (punting average) and as many balls (as we can) inside the 10-yard line. If we get it down inside the 10, it cuts the percentage of their scoring a field goal or a touchdown.”
This season, Colquitt has planted a league-leading 18 of his 32 punts inside the 20 — or 56.3 percent, which also ranks first. Opponents have returned just nine of his 32 punts, or a league-low 28.1 percent. Of those 18 punts inside the 20, seven have been at or inside the 10. And he’s had just two touchbacks, second in the NFL to his brother, Britton, who also punts rugby style for Denver.
Opposing punt returners have managed just 64 yards against the Chiefs on Colquitt’s 32 punts — 2.0 yards per attempt — second only to the 25 yards on 23 punts by New Orleans’ Thomas Morestead.
“He will take punt returners out of a game single-handedly,” deep snapper Thomas Gafford said. “It’s a double-edged sword for me. I’m glad he does that for our team. I want to cover punts, I want to make tackles, but I don’t get the opportunities. But I’ll take that, though. It’s better for the team.
“It’s got to be good for (Coach) Andy Reid. We’re in the middle of the field, and he puts us out there knowing (the opponent) is going to have a long field to drive. And we get excited on special teams because Dustin is going to pin them deep, and then we’re going to stop them on defense, and the ball is going to get in (punt returner) De’Anthony Thomas’ hands.”
Colquitt, the Chiefs’ third-round pick from Tennessee in 2005, ranks first in franchise history with a 44.8-yard gross punting average and 39.3-yard net, which ranks fifth in the NFL since the 1970 merger.
He began toying with the rugby-style kick in his second season, about 10 years after former San Diego punter Darren Bennett, an Australian Rules Football player, introduced the technique to the NFL and passed it on to his successor with the Chargers, Mike Scifres.
“It’s a copycat league,” Colquitt said. “I didn’t do it in a game until my fourth year. It took me a couple of years of doing it a bunch to say I’m ready to throw this out in front of a bunch of people. It matches hang time and distance well.
“A rugby punt doesn’t go as far as an open-field punt, but it hangs up there nice. It makes return guys want to fair catch.”
The secret is in the drop of the ball to Colquitt’s powerful left foot.
“You drop the nose down as opposed to a level drop, and you hit it the bottom third of the ball, end over end like a kickoff. It allows you to have a little more control of the ball. You’re seeing less touchbacks and more offenses where you want them to be.”
Most of the NFL’s top punters, including Seattle’s Jon Ryan and San Francisco’s Andy Lee, have joined Scifres and the Colquitts in the art of the rugby-style kick. Since 2011, Dustin Colquitt’s 43 punts inside the 10 rank second to Ryan’s 49. And no one has planted more kicks inside the 20 during the past 10 years than Colquitt, who has done so a franchise-record 303 times.
“He has more touch on that than I’ve seen anyone,” Gafford said. “A lot of other guys, that ball comes down hard, and you don’t know where it’s going to bounce, and most of the time it bounces in the end zone.”
Colquitt doesn’t punt rugby-style exclusively. He mainly uses the technique from inside the 45-yard line. When kicking from his own side of the field, he usually blasts away, or punts directionally, and that requires a conventional drop of the ball.
“Dustin is a great weapon for us,” Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub said. “When you get down to the part of the field, where it’s the 35-yard line, the 38-yard line, sometimes you want to play defense. You want to punt ’em down there and pin ’em and play defense and not go for the long field goal.
“We have confidence that Cairo (Santos) can make long field goals, but when you have a guy like Dustin … and really good gunners on the coverage unit, that gives you that opportunity, depending on what the game is, and weather, to go ahead and play defense.”