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How Much Will Shane Lechler Really Impact The Texans' Special Teams?

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What the Shane Lechler signing really means for the Houston Texans in 2013. With numbers and everything.

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On March 23rd, Houston signed Shane Lechler to stop the bleeding of lost yards and missed opportunities the Houston Texans special teams are known for. The 36 year old "Boy with the Golden Toe" left the Black Hole to finish his career back home in Texas. The thirteen year pro is a hoarder of awards and has a resume that includes nine first team All Pro nods, seven Pro Bowls, membership in the NFL 2000s All Decade Team, an AFC Championship, a season with a Y/P of 51.1 and, most importantly, the longest punt in Raiders history (80 yards). All of this is swell. The questions remain. Is Shane Lechler worth the contract? How much will he improve the Texans? What effect will playing at Reliant have on his game?

The Contract

S. Bonus Misc. Cap Hit
2013 1,000,000 333,333 1,333,333
2014 1,750,000 333,333 2,083,333
2015 1,750,000 333,334 2,083,334

Hats off to Rick Smith for signing for one of the greatest punters of all time at this price. This signing is like finding the Weezer "Blue" album cluttered among Creed and Toby Keith CDs in the Wal-Mart bargain bin. At this salary, Lechler is not even one of the ten highest paid punters in the NFL. The highest paid punter is Michael Koenen of the Bucs, who gets paid $3,325,000; more to come on him later. Houston was likely able to sign Lechler at such a low price for his productivity because of (a) his age and (b) his insistence at ending his career in Texas. Lechler finished last season with the following stat line as compared to Donnie Jones, both of whom were top ten punters last season:

Player Punts Yards Long Y/P Net In 20 TB FC Returned Returned Yards
Shane Lechler 81 3,826 68 47.2 39 21 9 16 45 450
Donnie Jones 88 4,150 66 47.2 40.5 28 5 15 48 483

There is not much difference between the two, except Jones played the majority of his games indoors last year. What is worrisome is the high number of return yards (only the Jags and Dolphins had more) that both players surrendered last year. Is that number due to poor hang time or terrible punt coverage units? If the latter is the case, assuming Houston's coverage units stay at their current level, even 2009 Shane Lechler will not improve Houston's special teams in 2013.

The Impact

Last season, Houston finished last in special teams DVOA and Oakland finished second to last. Both teams were atrocious in different aspects. Here is a look at just the kicking stats of their respective DVOAs, courtesy of Football Outsiders:

Team DVOA Last Season FG/XP Kick Punt Weather
Oakland -5.8% 20 11.8 -12.1 -15.3 1.1
Houston -7.7% 13 -5.8 -25.9 -1.2 9.7

Houston's last place ranking in special teams is a direct result of the kick return game and Shayne Graham's noodle leg. Graham's inability to hit a field goal from farther than 45 yards or kick a touchback killed Houston's special teams and DVOA (unreturnable kicks are rated higher than those that are returned). Oakland, on the other hand, suffered not from poor kicking, but from an awful coverage game. These stats can be seen when looking at the punt return yards discussed earlier. Lechler punted about as well as Jones did, so the discrepancy in the punting rating comes from Oakland having a worse coverage unit than Houston (shocking, right?).

Will Lechler provide a significant boost to the Texans' special teams? The answer may lie with Randy Bullock. If he can kick touchbacks and consistently knock down 50+ yard field goals, Houston's special teams will improve dramatically. The other components of Houston's special teams that need to improve are the coverage team and the return game. Unfortunately, both of these aspects are under control of Houston's favorite coach, Joe Maricano. Let's all bow our heads and pray for Bullock's groin to be ready for the stresses of kicking the football.

Kicking Indoors

How much of an advantage it is to play indoors than outside? An indoor team gets the benefit of a louder crowd (unless you are the Cowboys), plus punts/kicks/throws that aren't affected by wind, rain and snow. It's football in a vacuum. The Cowboys, Rams, Lions, Falcons, Vikings, Colts, Saints, Texans and Cardinals all get the additional gravy for playing indoors. The question is how much of an effect punting indoors rather than outdoors has on a team. Below is a chart for punters who moved from playing for an indoor team to a primarily outdoor team, and vice versa. Disclaimer: This is a fairly rough estimate since I do not have the time or the info to check how it affects players game by game; instead, I looked at full season stats.

Player Avg Yards per punt Outside
Long Average Long Avg Y/P Dome Long Average Long Difference Y/P Career Y/P
Donnie Jones 42.48 64 59.33 46.69 80 67.5 4.21 45.6
Matt Turk 42.28 77 64.72 42.53 74 52.7 0.25 42.4
Chad Stanley 39.5 70 60 41 62 60 1.5 40.6
Brian Moorman 43.9 84 75.4 44.6 75 66.5 0.7 44
Mat McBriar 46.5 66 66 45.3 75 66.5 -1.2 46.5
Toby Gowin 38.2 58 58 41.6 72 62.71 3.4 41.2
Darren Bennet 43.8 66 63.33 39.1 61 57 -4.7 43.4
Kyle Richardson 41.2 67 59.37 39.9 61 57 -1.3 41.1
Michael Koenen 45.2 65 64.5 42 70 64.33 -3.2 42.8
Chris Mohr 40.48 80 61.72 40.3 59 56 -0.18 40.4
Mitch Berger 40.9 65 61 43.32 75 67.09 2.42 42.9
Dirk Johnson 41.72 63 60.6 41.18 59 59 -0.54 41.7
Ben Graham 43.7 69 63.33 44.5 65 55.8 0.8 44.1
Nick Harris 40.7 57 55.5 43 67 60.2 2.3 42.4
Dave Zastudil 42.7 67 62.37 45.9 70 68 3.2 43.5
Scott Player 42.8 67 59.87 44.9 58 58 2.1 43.1
Bryan Barker 42.05 83 64 42.7 63 63 0.65 42.1
Reggie Hodges 41.7 61 55.5 38 55 55 -3.7 41.5
Sean Landeta 43.26 74 65.65 43.77 63 60 0.51 43.3
Sum of difference 7.22
Averages 42.27 68.58 62.12 42.65
66.53 60.86 0.38 42.77

As I mentioned, all of the punters listed above moved into or out of an indoor playing field. The stats I looked at are the yards per punt inside versus outside, the average of the punters' longest punts per season inside and outside, the difference in Y/P between the two playing surfaces, and the punters' career average. The two biggest takeaways are that punters who played inside had a +7.22 yard addition, and on average punters gain 0.38 yards extra per punt playing inside. This does not seem like much of an improvement, but the data is affected by older players who move from playing outside to inside at the end of their careers.

An example of this type of punter is Darren Bennet, maybe the coolest punter of all time. He played Australian rules football until the age of 30 and then moved to the United States, where he became the punter for the San Diego Chargers. In his first season, he was named first team All Pro after averaging 44.7 Y/P. He continued to get better with age, and in 2000 he kicked 46.2 Y/P at the age of 35. Then he entered a downturn. Four years later, he left the Chargers to kick the ball in the historic Metrodome. He would only last two more seasons in the NFL after seeing his yards per punt slip down to 39.1.

Michael Koenen is the exact opposite of Bennet. Koenen left the Falcons for the Bucs, and his Y/P jumped by 3.2. Now he is the highest paid punter in the game. Koenen exemplifies another trend I saw when researching--that punters start off with a Y/P around 42, then peak at about age 30 with around a 3 yard increase of Y/P at their climax. Koenen's jump in production probably came from him reaching his peak, not leaving a domed stadium.

Finally, one more player is the perfect case study for the effect playing indoors has on a punter. Scott Player punted in Arizona from 1998-2006. The Cardinals played in Sun Devil Stadium until 2006 when they moved to the modern architectural marvel that is the University of Phoenix Stadium. Player pummeled punts in the desert heat at Sun Devil Stadium for eight years, but did not have his best year until the new stadium was built, when he posted a career high 44.9 Y/P (excluding the 13 punts he had with the Browns).

Just remember the above data is a rough estimate. It proves nothing, other than seemingly confirming what we already thought--that moving indoors improves a punter's ability to kick the ball farther. Unfortunatley, there is not very much historical data regarding punters, so I could not look at statistics like punts inside the 20, touchbacks, and fair catches.

After spending way too much time researching punters, I believe Lechler will post a Y/P at about 49 with the move to Houston this year. He should eclipse the historical average increase of 0.38 yards. Lechler is past his prime, but at 36, he is not at the end of his career; I can't see him having a Darren Bennetesque fallout.

It was a savvy move by Smith to make an upgrade over the good but unspectacular Donnie Jones, and he was able to do it a reasonable price. Is Lechler a special teams savior that will bring the dead Houston Texans special teams back from the grave? No, but the combination of him and Randy Bullock's BFG cannon leg should improve Houston's special teams. If it wasn't for Marciano's inability to scheme a decent PR/KR game or put his kick coverage units in a position to succeed, Houston could field a very good special teams unit in 2013.