As the New Orleans Saints offense continues to thrash opponents, embarrassing opposing coaches and defensive coordinators, you may not find anyone on either sideline more tense than Thomas Morstead.
While Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas dance to “Choppa Style” on the sidelines, Morstead, the Saints’ punter since 2009, paces back and forth, practices place-kick holds, all with his helmet on in a constant state of purposeful paranoia. For Morstead, the Saints’ best New Orleans offensive performances typically mean the most stressful days.
“I’m paranoid,” he said after the Saints 48-7 home win over the Philadelphia Eagles. “The less I punt, the more I try to do because there’s no flow to my game. When I’m not playing much, honestly, it’s hard to keep the sword sharp when you’re constantly being tested.”
As Drew Brees and Michael Thomas march on with their historically successful campaigns, Morstead’s contribution — or lack of it — has begun to stand out in the record books itself.
Through 10 games, the 2009 fifth-round pick out of SMU has punted just 21 times. Against the Redskins in Week 5 and the Bengals in Week 10, Morstead wasn’t forced to launch a single kick. Instead, he jogged on to hold 16 field goals or extra points for kicker Wil Lutz.
Signing a five-year contract extension in the offseason worth close to $20 million, including incentives, Morstead has ended up playing less and having a front-row seat to one of the best offensive shows in recent memory.
It may sound like one of the best gigs in the league. But Morstead doesn’t take the task lightly.
Some players waltz into the stadium on Sunday, dressed to the nines, oozing swagger while their Spotify playlist spits out edge-boosting lyrics. Others may listen to the oldest classical music you can find to calm their nerves and lower their blood pressure.
Morstead fits in a separate category all his own, preferring a distinct anxious mental state that has him constantly on edge, like a teenager walking into final exams immediately after a hasty cram session.
“I try keeping my heart rate high,” he said. “The perfect analogy is being on the edge of a cliff without falling over. That type of anxiety or nervous energy, I want to keep that throughout the whole game.
“I want to be edgy the whole game. I’ve never tried to relax on game day. I don’t like that feeling; that’s why I never take my helmet off on the sideline. I always want to be doing something. I want to stay locked in and slightly uncomfortable the whole game.”
If you omit holding for kicks, Morstead has been doing less between the lines than nearly every punter in NFL history. The NFL record for fewest punts by a team in a season is 23, held by the 1982 San Diego Chargers. With 21 punts through 10 games, the second-place mark of 31 punts by the 1982 Cincinnati Bengals is certainly within reach.
Bear in mind that 1982 was a strike-shortened year, when the regular season lasted just nine games.
Previously, Morstead’s low for punts in a season came in 2011 during Brees’ historic season, when he set the then-record for yards passing (5,476) while tossing 46 touchdowns. The Saints punter remarked Sunday at the similarities between the two years — but on paper, 2018 is even rarer than normal.
Still, Morstead is averaging 46.3 yards per punt and just 4.6 yards per return, the second-best net punting average of his career.
Like any NFL star, eye-popping numbers don’t come without strife. Uniquely, Morstead’s struggles come while his teammates celebrate.
“Like anybody, if you sit on your butt for too long, you start to get used to that environment,” he said. “I’m probably doing more now on the sidelines than I normally would, but it’s hard to keep your confidence high when you don’t have an opportunity to demonstrate your ability.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’m paid to be ready to punt, whether it’s zero, one or 10 times. But I have to be ready.”
It’s a bit strange that the NFL would administer a test after a video like this, it’s not like the punter is throwing around heavy weight in a gym, or even looking particularly shredded.
Hopefully he doesn’t receive anymore “random” drug tests during the year after he pins a few punts inside the 20.
Beads, stuffed animals, pralines, bags of potato chips, things that blink — you never know what you can catch during a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. But you can be sure New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead wasn’t expecting the bright yellow throw made to look like an NFL penalty flag, which he caught along the Uptown parade route on Sunday (Feb. 24).
And Morstead had just one word for it when he shared an image of the throw on his Twitter page: “Finally…”
Morstead and the rest of the New Orleans Saints — as well as their fans — were mystified when in the NFC Championship this year NFL referees infamously missed a pass interference call that likely would have propelled the team on to the Super Bowl in Atlanta. But the call never came, and the Los Angeles Rams took the trip instead.
Naturally, New Orleanians haven’t exactly taken the loss in stride. Instead, a “boycott” second-line and festival, among other events, were scheduled on Super Bowl Sunday to keep locals from bothering to watch the big game. As TV ratings show, it worked, and local viewership plummeted.
There was a time before the 2009 season when Thomas Morstead started booming punts down the field when he should have been just in warm-up mode. Practice hadn’t begun, but the then-rookie wanted to show something to incumbent journeyman Glenn Pakulak.
“We just started banging balls back and forth for about 20 minutes trying to one-up each other,” Morstead said in a Times-Picayune story published in June 2009. “So it’s been a fun competition, but I probably shouldn’t do that regularly.”
Morstead came to the New Orleans Saints 10 years ago without any assurances of a job. He had plenty to prove. The Saints swapped two draft picks to move up two spots so they could select Morstead in the fifth round at No. 164 overall. Coach Sean Payton described the selection of the punter as fulfilling “a position on our grease board at the end of the season that was a need.”
The selection came with some skepticism from the public. According to Times-Picayune archives, the Saints faced “overwhelming reaction on message boards and chat rooms,” with many fans perhaps remembering the ill-fated selection of punter Russell Erxleben at No. 11 overall exactly three decades earlier. The trade also left the Saints with only four selections that year, which caused fans of a team coming off an 8-8 season to question the selection of a specialist such as Morstead.
The Saints selected Morstead when they did because they felt certain he would not have lasted into the sixth round, much less another couple spots in the draft. To get Morstead, the Saints sent the Eagles a seventh-round pick in that year’s draft and a fifth-round pick in the next year’s draft.
Morstead was one of three punters selected that year. The Bengals selected Kevin Huber 16 spots ahead of Morstead, and he, like Morstead, is still with the team that selected him. Then, with the No. 222 overall pick the Saints sent to the Eagles, the Colts acquired that pick and used it to select Pat McAfee, twice a Pro Bowl selection before his retirement after eight seasons in Indianapolis.
The draft back then was a Saturday-Sunday event held at Radio City Music Hall in New York, one year before the league made the first round a primetime Thursday event. Four years after that, the NFL put the draft in Chicago. The draft this year is in Nashville and begins Thursday (April 25).
In the nine drafts since the Morstead pick in 2009, 17 other punters have gone to 16 teams. Among those 17 punters, four were selected at a spot higher than where Morstead went in 2009: Zoltan Mesko of Michigan to the Patriots at No. 150 in 2010, Bryan Anger of Cal to the Jaguars at No. 70 in 2011, Jeff Locke of UCLA to the Vikings at No. 155 in 2013 and Michael Dickson of Texas to the Seahawks at No. 149 in 2018.
Dickson is the only punter since Morstead for whom a team traded up to select. The Seahawks moved up seven spots in a deal that sent the Broncos the fifth- and a seventh-round picks they used to select Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli and Arkansas running back David Williams.
When Morstead arrived, the Southern Methodist University product described himself as “a hang-time type of guy,” which showed in his impressive 5.56-second hang time of a punt during a Pro Day workout at the college.
“For me,” said Morstead, “the idea is getting where you can do this on a consistent basis. For any punter, that’s the name of the game. It’s not the yardage, not how far your punts travel. It’s how many yards the other team returns them.”
He noted Ray Guy as his punting idol. As Times-Picayune columnist Peter Finney noted just weeks after Morstead arrived, Guy once booted a punt in the Superdome high enough so that the ball hit against one of the center-hung replay boards that are no longer there, about 180 feet above the turf.
Morstead referenced Frank Gansz, a former special teams coach in the NFL and for Morstead at SMU, when saying it was more important for him to hit his “B” punts consistently than it was to fluctuate between his “A,” “B” and “C” punts.
“The biggest thing is if Thomas misses a punt, we’re still getting hang time above 4.0 (seconds),” Payton said in August 2009 — that’s when the team released Pakulak and made Morstead their guy. “So sometimes it’s not the hits, it’s the misses. I think he has done a good job early of being consistent.”
“Everybody asks me if I’m relaxed now,” Morstead said when he won the job. “It’s nice to know they are giving me a vote of confidence by saying, ‘Hey, you’re our guy,’ but I’m competing against the rest of the guys in the league, and I’m competing against 100 other guys who are trying to get in the league. NFL teams are always looking for a better guy at every position, so I know it’s no time to relax.”
Some of the greatest praise for Morstead in recent seasons came from Bill Belichick in 2017. The Patriots coach said how he prepared his team for the strong-legged Morstead by pointing the Jugs so that the ball goes 55 to 70 yards downfield and lands a yard from the sideline.
“Not many guys … can punt the ball like him,” Belichick said. “Again, it’s not just his distance but it’s his placement, accuracy. I mean, his plus-50 punts are like from the minus-40. He’s just different because of his strength and power and control.”
Morstead has provided a rare level of stability in a league where teams frequently change punters. The Buccaneers, for comparison, have used seven punters since Morstead joined the Saints. Morstead also has been durable, as he’s been active in all but two games in his career — both in 2015 — because of a hamstring injury.
Morstead ranks third in career punting average. Based on his offseason social media posts that show video of his workouts, the 33-year-old does not plan to end his playing career anytime soon.
He also has endeared himself to the community. What You Give Will Grow, a charity started by Morstead and his wife, Lauren, has raised more than $2.5 million for children’s charities.
His rookie season ended with him kicking the successful onside kick that started the second half of the Saints’ Super Bowl win. He’ll begin his 11th season this year. When the fifth round begins this week, keep in mind the lasting value that can be found when the proper selection is made, even at that stage in the selection process.