By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- With a 4-7 record and no postseason prospects, the Rams are not enjoying a very successful year in their first season back in Los Angeles.
For that, many people are responsible. But, according to Bill Belichick, one man who should be absolved from any and all blame is the punter.
The Patriots' head coach stepped to the podium Wednesday morning at Gillette Stadium and spoke glowingly about punter Johnny Hekker. And then spoke glowingly some more. And then, a bit more.
Bill really likes this punter.
Here's how Belichick kicked off his weekly Wednesday press conference:
"Start with saying they're a very talented team. They have a lot of very good players, a lot of explosive players in all three phases of the game. I'll start with the kicking game, Hekker's a tremendous weapon. I mean, this guy's as good a player as I've ever seen at that position. He's a tremendous weapon in his ability to punt the ball, punt it inside the 20, directional kick it, involved in fakes, he can throw, he can run, very athletic."
In the interest of fairness, Belichick went up and down the roster and praised many members of the Rams roster. But the conversation did turn back to the 26-year-old punter:
"Yeah, no, he's dangerous. Absolutely. He's like a quarterback. He can throw, he can run. You've got to defend him like you defend one of those guys."
Belichick stopped short of praising Hekker's skills as a holder, but rest assured, he's good at that, too.
Belichick's not alone in his feelings. Linebacker Alec Ogletree suggested recently that Hekker might have been the team's first-half MVP. In fact, many of his teammates have praised his punting abilities, and his performance against the Jets placed his name in a number of headlines around the country. But no praise has quite reached the level of Wednesday morning.
"This guy's a weapon. I mean he's not a good player; he's a weapon."
In his five-year career, Hekker has completed six of his 10 pass attempts for 99 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating is 126.7. In the running game, he hasn't been quite as successful, as he has just one career rush for a loss of nine yards.
As with most topics indulged by Belichick, discussion of this punter turned into a discussion of the best punters in history. Belichick said he was willing to put Hekker among the greats, and spoke in detail about what can make a punter so dynamic.
"And Dave [Jennings, for the Giants] could throw, he had very good directional placement on the ball, was a clutch punter when you needed one. I still remember in the Dallas game being backed up inside our 10-yard line, he hit a 55-yarder out of the end zone. That eventually got us into the playoffs. It's not just average -- it's like golf. It's not can you make a putt? It's making 'em when you gotta make 'em. So, same thing with kickers. Definitely put Jennings in there, [Sean] Landeta. I mean, but you're talking about an athlete with Hekker now that's more athletic than Landeta. And I would say Ray Guy. You know, Ray kicked for great average.
"Look, these guys [the Rams] lead the league in punt coverage. So they lead the league in gross punting, they lead the league in net punting, they lead the league in inside the 20, and they lead the league in coverage. I mean, if you're in front in one of those categories, pretty good. Last year, they led the league in all three. They're right up there this year. So, plus he's a threat on fakes and stuff like that. So he's pretty good."
Another wrinkle that Hekker adds is the difficulty in simply catching his booming kicks.
"Just gotta make sure we get the ball, that's all. So I mean, another part of the problem is catching the ball. I mean, we've seen multiple guys, I mean he kicks it so far and he makes the returner move for it and they run over there and then they mishandle it or it hits the ground and then it rolls for another 20 yards. It's a tough ball to catch because you're not just shagging flies out there; he's making you run and he's kicking it over your head and that, so the ball-handling is tough for the returners, too. Very tough. The Jets had a lot of truoble with it, Carolina. Trying to think of who else. But he's had several punts this year where they can't get to the ball and then it rolls 20 yards, so 50 becomes 70, or 45 becomes 65, and it just changes field position with one play. You think you're going to get the ball with good field position, and then you're on your 15-yard line. So, gotta do a good job there."
It was a continuation of Tuesday's conference call, in which Belichick spoke unprompted about Hekker's versatility. From Tuesday:
"Hekker is a tremendous punter. He can change field positions, so they're very explosive there. They're aggressive in the kicking game whether it's running fakes, keeping the defense off balance when they're kicking the ball or with their return game when they're getting the ball. ... Hekker, he's a tremendous punter and a tremendous athlete. Like [Pat] McAfee from Indianapolis, he can do a lot of things besides punt the ball, so when you have those kind of explosive players and dynamic players, you build around them and give them an opportunity to do it. I think that's what Jeff [Fisher] does."
So, now you know. The Rams do have a number of explosive players who can fill up a highlight reel, from Aaron Donald and Alec Ogletree on defense to Kenny Britt and Todd Gurley on offense. But when the game begins Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, we'd all be foolish to keep our eyes fixed anywhere other than on No. 6, standing on the sideline, the Rams' most potent weapon waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike.
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