Why a left-footed punter helps Broncos returner Montrell Washington
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After too many quarterback competitions to count over the last few years, detailing special-teams derbies at Broncos camp is refreshing.
Sure, chronicling the ins and outs of punters and punt returners lacks the overarching importance of quarterback. But the jockeying for position also shows another way in which Nathaniel Hackett and his staff are trying to aid a player’s development.
In this case, the player is fifth-round returner Montrell Washington.
The ex-Samford wide receiver is the ultimate wild card in the Broncos’ draft class. He had some of the same attributes as Marcus Jones, whom the New England Patriots selected in Round 3. But a major difference was the level at which they played college football: Jones was in the FBS American Athletic Conference, while Washington toiled in the FCS-level Southern Conference.
Pre-draft prognostications pegged Jones for late-Day 2 selection. Few expected Washington to hear his name called. But both are quick and explosive, blessed with vision and good body control. But Washington has a bigger level jump.
Which is why when he looked downfield before each punt during OTAs and minicamp, he glimpsed a sight that should help his development.
Some of his punts came from incumbent Sam Martin. Others fired off the foot of newcomer Corliss Waitman, who had a brief Steelers stint last year. And the punts looked, sounded and traveled differently.
Martin, like most NFL punters, is a right-footed specialist. Waitman is a lefty.
“The lefty ball, obviously, spins a little bit different than right,” Broncos special-teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes explained. “It takes a while to get used to catching those types of punts.
“The benefit of having Corliss and Sam in training camp, in the offseason, [is that] it gets all of our returners—not just Montrell, but [WR] KJ [Hamler], [WR] Kendall [Hinton] etcetera, reps at a left punter and also a right punter. So I think that’s beneficial for us moving forward into the year.”
Waitman showed his chops last week. During one OTA practice, his hang times ranged between 4.21 and 4.95 seconds, averaging 4.56 seconds, according to my stopwatch. He averaged 52.1 yards on seven punts for Pittsburgh last year.
“I think Corliss has a strong leg. He’s a good athlete,” Stukes said. “He has good hands to hold. The left-footed spin on the ball is different. You see that he’s a talented punter.”
Should Waitman not stick with the Broncos, he could emerge as some team’s full-time punter at some point in the future.
“What Corliss needs to focus on in the offseason is directional punting, which we’ve addressed. So, he’s working on getting the ball to the numbers, to outside the numbers, which we’re big on here. And Sam has done a great job of that as well. I’m happy with both of those guys.”
But Waitman also displayed more of a tendency for end-over-end punts than Martin. The incumbent’s punts typically spiral in mid-air. But Martin also has the rugby-style punt in his arsenal. On that, Martin drops the point of the football before the kick. This often leads to a bounce away from the goal line.
Washington can only benefit from this variety.
“He will see different punts. He’ll see a flip-flop punt, he’ll see banana punts, he’ll see spiral punts — there’s a multitude of punts that he’ll see in the NFL,” Stukes said.
And with the left-footed Waitman in the fold, Washington can see them all now.
“I think he’s become more comfortable,” Stukes said of his new returner during minicamp. “Any time you return in college, and you’ve done it extensively, and then you come to the NFL game, obviously, it’s a little different. In college, guys can get out freely and cover on a punt.
“But to me, it looks like he’s comfortable knowing he has guys that can actually block for him on the outside and the interior. I think it works [when] 11 guys work together for us to have success. I think he’s done a great job from Day 1 to now, improving with his catch mechanics, absolutely.”
THE RATIONALE BEHIND A LEFT-FOOTED PUNTER
Bill Belichick’s coaching history has the answer.
In the 1970s, the man who would become the NFL’s second-winningest all-time coach broke into the league as a special-teams assistant with the Baltimore Colts. He later coached special teams with the Detroit Lions and New York Giants.
For most of his time with the Patriots, Belichick used left-footed punters. Until the Patriots drafted Jake Bailey in 2019, he opened each of his first 19 seasons as New England’s head coach with a left-footed punter.
At a 2013 press conference, Belichick described it as a “coincidence.”
“I don’t really have any preference toward left-footed punters,” he said then. “I know it’s worked out that way, I can’t deny it. But, I’ve also had the opportunity to coach and be with a lot of good right-footed punters, too, and I was more than happy with them.
“I loved [Tom] Tupa, loved [Dave] Jennings, loved [Sean] Landeta,” Belichick continued, referring to punters he had during stints with the Browns and Giants and as a New England assistant. “… I think it’s a coincidence, really.”
But one year later, Belichick pulled back the curtain on the benefits of a left-footed punter.
The subject arose midway through the 2014 schedule — and it involved the Broncos. Denver, then 6-1, prepared for New England by giving a tryout to left-footed punter Michael Parlardy, who punted to then-returner Isaiah Burse. The goal was to get Burse ready for Ryan Allen, then in his second of six seasons as the Patriots’ left-footed punter.
Belchick explained that during his time as a New York Giants assistant (1979-90), he would have quarterback Phil Simms punt in practice when a lefty punter was on the docket. Why? Because although Simms threw with his right hand, he punted with his left foot.
“We had a right-footed punter obviously with Jennings and then with Landeta and when we would face a left-footed punter, we always kind of just wanted to get the returner to handle those balls, which was [Phil] McConkey,” Belichick said in 2014. “It was several different guys, but I definitely remember McConkey and how Phil would talk about how … it was just good to get familiar with it prior to doing it in the upcoming game.”
It’s to the Broncos’ credit that they’re using a roster spot on a second punter. At a minimum, Waitman will push Martin.
Having two punters alternating periods and punting from opposite feet is a little thing. But it could translate to something big if it helps make Washington — or whoever returns punts — more effective this season.
It’s simply smart football.