If you’re a Steelers fan, mark Dec. 13 on your calendars. A big division game on the road at Cincinnati? Yes. But it’s also a day Brad Wing – potentially – could make history.
Under Mike Tomlin, no man has started and finished two consecutive full seasons as the Steelers punter. Should Wing make it to mid-December holding the job – no sure thing whatsoever, considering he’d have to hold off challenger Jordan Berry in camp, stay healthy and avoid getting cut due to performance through 12 games – he will have been the first Steeler since Chris Gardocki (2004-2006) to last at least 29 consecutive games as the team’s punter.
Through a combination of poor performance, bad luck, injuries and a quick trigger finger when it comes to cuts, the Steelers’ punting position has been a revolving door since Gardocki was cut at age 37 in the wake of the team drafting punter Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.
Gardocki and Josh Miller had handled 716 of the Steelers’ 729 punts over the decade span of 1997-2006 (trivia answer for the remaining 13: one Kordell Stewart quick kick in 1998 and two by Ben Roethlisberger in 2005, three punts by kicker Kris Brown when Miller was knocked out of the 2001 opener in Jacksonville and seven by Tom Rouen when Miller had a shoulder injury in 2002).
In an early statement as to a supposed emphasis on special teams during his first draft as coach, Tomlin (via general manager Kevin Colbert, et al) traded up in the fourth round of the 2007 draft to select Sepulveda, the NCAA’s all-time leader in punting average. (A little more trivia and perspective: The Patriots used the 110th pick in a trade to get Randy Moss; the Steelers used a sixth-round pick to move up to the spot two picks later to nab Sepulveda).
But Sepulveda would neither stay healthy (he was available for only 52 of the Steelers’ 80 games he was paid by them) nor live up to his lofty draft status (a mediocre 43.7 yards-per-punt career gross average).
So the Steelers turned elsewhere. Again and again.
Eight men have held the title of being the Steelers’ punter over the past eight seasons, with the job being passed on to someone else (for one reason or another) 11 times in that span.
Some seasonal examples to wit…
2008: Sepulveda sustained a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. Mitch Berger held the job for eight games but then got cut in favor of Paul Ernster, who held it for all of three weeks before the Steelers cut him and went back to Berger.
2010: A Sepulveda knee injury after the 12th game knocked him out for the season, and the team turned to Penn State grad Jeremy Kapinos.
2011: On Nov. 5 – midway through the regular season – the Steelers again turned to Kapinos after placing Sepulveda on injured reserve because of, you guessed it, a knee injury.
2013: The Steelers spent the preseason with two punters on their roster – incumbent Drew Butler and 37-year-old Brian Moorman – but ended up using neither of them, instead signing Zoltan Mesko the week prior to the regular-season opener. Mesko wouldn’t even last the season, though, and he was cut in late October in favor of Matt McBriar.
The Steelers have tried seemingly everything: From rookies (Drew Butler) and first-year players (Wing) to 36-year-olds (Mitch Berger) and 11-year veterans (Matt McBriar); unsigned first-year players (Berry) to high draft picks (Sepulveda). They’ve tried both right- and left-footed (Sepulveda) punters. They’ve encouraged competition in camp, scanned the waiver wire when camp ended, brought in players for tryouts midseason.
Nothing – in terms of continuity, at least – has worked.
The Steelers punters, by season, in the Mike Tomlin Era, with team punting NFL ranks
Season Punter(s) Team gross rank Team net rank
2007 Daniel Sepulveda 18th 18th
2008 Mitch Berger (13 games), Paul Ernster (3) 31st 29th
2009 Sepulveda 22nd 22nd
2010 Sepulveda (12 games), Jeremy Kapinos (4) 12th 8th
2011 Sepulveda (8 games), Kapinos (8) 16th 9th
2012 Drew Butler 26th 25th
2013 Zoltan Mesko (7 games), Matt McBriar (9) 31st 31st
2014 Brad Wing 29th 26th
AVERAGES IN TOMLIN ERA 23rd 21st
I couldn’t find the data to back this up, but judging by those numbers the Steelers’ gross average has got to be one of the worst in the league over that eight-year span. Not exactly the legacy Tomlin was looking to establish by spending two picks on a specialist in his debut draft as a head coach.
Maybe Wing can stop the merry-go-round. Other than a couple memorable gaffes last season, he was satisfactorily dependable – and at 24 with a year of experience under his belt, one would bet on him improving and remaining the Steleers’ punter throughout this season and into the foreseeable future.
Then again, after watching what has happened to Steelers punters over the past decade, perhaps the smarter bet is on what always seems to happen: Change at the position.