The New York Jets aren't intimidated by Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, and good for them. They shouldn't be. But they should be nervous about Mike Scifres because he's the one guy they can't defend.
Scifres is the San Diego Chargers punter, and punters are about as exciting as a February stroll through downtown Detroit. But Scifres is more than a punter, he's a weapon, and he can determine the outcome of Sunday's game by determining field position.
|Mike Scifres continually pinned down the Colts in last year's playoffs. (US Presswire)|
"I don't know if you can dream a game like this," Scifres said afterward.
When you're Scifres, you can.
"Scifres was unbelievable," said Bruce DeHaven, special teams coach for Seattle last year. "He was the difference in that game."
And he could be the difference Sunday.
Scifres isn't just the better punter in this game, he's one of the best punters in the game. A lot of people will tell you that it all starts with Oakland's Shane Lechler, but not me. I'll take Scifres, because while he doesn't launch the bombs Lechler does, Scifres doesn't outkick the coverage either. Plus, he has marvelous hang time and is terrific at killing punts inside the 20.
Look at that Indianapolis game again. Scifres had six punts that afternoon, all inside the 20, five at or inside the 10 and two inside the 5. Five of his kicks went 50 or more yards, one went 68. His average of 52.7 yards was marvelous, but his net of 51.7 was astounding.
In short, it was one of the greatest games by any punter anywhere.
"He just punted us in a hole all night long," said then-coach Tony Dungy. "That field position was a big difference."
Field position can be the difference again because the Jets don't exactly have what you'd call a quick-strike offense. Yes, they're the league's best rushing attack, and it's Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene who will be their featured performers Sunday. But if and when they must punt, they're at a disadvantage because Steve Weatherford is no Scifres.
A week ago, Weatherford didn't even kick, Jay Feely did. Weatherford has an irregular heartbeat that caused him to sit out the Cincinnati game and that will require surgery after the season. He says he's OK and is taking medication that puts him at no risk, and I'm happy for him.
But being OK with your punter is not matching up with Scifres. The Jets are outmanned here, and normally I wouldn't pay that much attention to the punters. But when you suit up a rookie quarterback and count on running backs for mileage, what your punters do for field position can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Indianapolis discovered that the hard way. When the Colts tried to protect a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead, Scifres pinned them at their 1 with a 52-yard punt. Indianapolis went nowhere, kicked the ball away and, just like that, the Chargers were in business, first-and-10 at the Colts' 38.
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Six plays later, we had a tie game.
"Scifres is a tremendous advantage for San Diego," DeHaven said. "He has hang times of 5.6 and 5.7 seconds, and there just aren't punters who can do that."
Weatherford's average (42.0) was three yards shy of Scifres, and his net (36.7) was 2 1/2 yards short. While that might not seem like much, start adding those figures as drives accumulate, and, suddenly, you find one team pushing the ball down the field -- and it's not the Jets.
In fairness to Scifres, this was not one of his best seasons. A sore groin that bothered him earlier caused his numbers to drop from last season. Nevertheless, he still landed nearly half his punts inside the 20 and had only two touchbacks. None of the league's top 33 punters had fewer.
"A punter is like a great cornerback," said new Eagles special teams coach Bobby April, "and a punt returner is like a great wide receiver. Every time he touches the ball he can make a big play. He's like Michael Irvin, and if you shut down Michael Irvin you shut down a big part of the offense."
April once called Scifres San Diego's "best defensive weapon," and I think he got it right. People like Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips and Luis Castillo can serve as speed bumps, preventing the Jets from covering the field, but only one guy can push them back ... and back ... and back.
Mike Scifres, come on down.