Post prologue: Click here to listen to this week’s episode of the Steelers Roundtable Show. Ralph Paulk and I are in the palatial TribLive Radio studios on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, while a sleepy Mark Kaboly joins us live from his hotel room bed (before 6 a.m.) in Northern California, where he is covering Super Bowl 50 for the Tribune-Review. We preview the game and chat 2016 Steelers issues.
The results of Jordan Berry’s first season were mixed – the Steelers punter flashed potential, but lacked consistency. While fans might have opinions, the team’s front office will make its thoughts known in the coming seven months.
But does Berry himself believe he’s shown – and has – what it takes to, at last, become the Steelers’ longterm answer at what has been a revolving door of a position?
“Definitely,” he told me. “It’s something where you love to do it and if you can try to stay in one spot, that’s definitely better. I feel like overall I had a pretty decent year this year; obviously I was not as consistent as I would like. But I feel like I can build on that and come back next year stronger if I keep working at it.”
Berry had surgery performed on his right shoulder less than week after injuring it during the Steelers’ divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos last month. By all accounts, it was a successful procedure that shouldn’t affect his preparations for the 2016 season all that much (aren’t all surgeries initially reported that way?), and there’s no reason to believe Berry will be prevented from being the Steelers punter for their regular-season opener the second weekend of September.
That said, it’s no slam dunk he will hold onto the job.
I’ve written about this before, but in the nine seasons Mike Tomlin has been coach of the Steelers, he has used nine punters: Daniel Sepulveda, Mitch Berger, Paul Ernster, Jeremy Kapinos, Drew Butler, Zoltan Mesko, Matt McBriar, Brad Wing and Berry. The gig has changed hands 12 times (three times because of injury, eight due to performance and then the trade of Wing at the end of last training camp… which, in some ways, could be attributed to performance because Berry had beaten him out).
What makes the revolving door at punter under Tomlin so fascinating is that he spent two draft picks (using one to trade up in the fourth round) to take a punter during his first draft. He clearly believed/hoped Sepulveda would stabilize the gig for a decade or so. Sepulveda, though, battled injuries and inconsistency over a five-year career in which he punted in just 52 games.
Not unlike Berry’s first season…
- His 28-to-2 ratio of punts landing inside the 20 vs. those that went for touchbacks was one of the best in the league (he was 11th in inside-the-20 kicks and only two punters had fewer touchbacks)
- That was a big part of Berry having only 19 punts returned against him – by far the fewest in the league and the best ratio of non-returned punts in the league.
- That ties into the 21 fair catches Berry induced; considering he only punted 59 times, that ratio also led the NFL.
- Berry finished 24th in the league in net average (39.1 yards).
- There were 32 punters for the 32 teams in the NFL this season that punted at least 56 times. Berry finished 31st of those 32 in gross average (42.6 yards).
Berry did not have a touchdown return against (of course, that’s largely attributable to the coverage team, but he deserves a measure of the credit, too), and the 165 total return yards on his punts was fourth-fewest among the league’s kickers. He also did not have a punt blocked and had the longest punt in the NFL this season (79 yards against Arizona).
But, by the “eye test,” Berry also had way too many botched kicks off that didn’t travel far enough. There aren’t easily-accessible stats for this, but everybody remembers the two punts of 27 yards from the Steelers’ own territory during their playoff loss at Denver. They were the sort of kicks that, quite frankly, happened too often this past season.
So, how does Berry intend on addressing that?
“It’s just reps and a mental process getting it right,” Berry said “It’s just sticking to this pro-style punting which I didn’t do a whole lot of in college. This was really my first year of doing that by itself and all the different situations you get put in: whether it’s a strong crosswind, or cold, or the heat and al that sort of stuff. Just getting those reps in all those situations; this year was very valuable for that. So I think next year while now I have a lot of that under my belt I should be able to come out a lot stronger and be a lot more consistent.”
Another year of being more fully immersed in “pro-style” punting (as opposed to the “Aussie” style he was able to use in college and, of course, growing up in Australia) should benefit Berry in 2016. As will the fact that he is signed by the Steelers as a fully-rostered player this spring and summer. That by no means is a guarantee he will earn the job – Berry is the favorite and expected to, but don’t be shocked if the Steelers add a punter to push him in camp. Still, his plight in 2016 is nowhere near as daunting than it was last year, when he was desperate to impress a team, meaning he had to be constantly kicking. The relative “rest” could pay dividends later, he says.
“Last year, I am trying to be like in sort of that high-performance level from all the way back in January right through,” Berry told me, “so I couldn’t take some time off and really get prepped for the season properly. This year, I’ll just be trying to compete for the job (merely) before we actually start the season.”