Punter is not the most glamorous position in football. Fans groan when their own fourth-down specialist hits the field each week, and they usually only make headlines if they throw a pass or scamper for a first down on a trick play. Still, they play an incredibly important role.
What makes a good punter? Would you judge off the average length of punt, punts inside the 20 or just off of consistency? Miami Dolphins punter Thomas Morstead says it's all about winning the play, whether it's booming the pigskin down the field from deep in your own territory, or pinning your opponent inside their one yard-line.
"Having no ego, just winning the play," Morstead told CBS Sports about what makes a good punter. "The other punter may have a 50-yard average on the day, but did he put the ball where he was supposed to? You may have short punts that you averaged 33 yards a punt, and every punt was down inside the 10. That's a great day. I think it's about winning every play."
Morstead has long been one of the best punters in the game. The 36-year-old is not only a Super Bowl champion, but an NFLPA executive officer, someone who has worked as his own agent and remained in the top 10 in net punt average in each of the last 11 seasons. In fact, his career mark of 46.6 yards per punt is tied for eighth all time.
This offseason, Morstead inked a deal with one of the big winners of the offseason in the Dolphins. It will be his third team played for in two seasons -- something almost hard to believe for the specialist that spent his first 12 seasons with one team, and toppedfor two consecutive seasons. The last year for Morstead has been full of ups and downs, and it all started with being fired.
A fifth-round pick out of SMU by the New Orleans Saints, Morstead was the second punter drafted in 2009. As a rookie, he executed the famous onside kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts, sparking a 25-7 run that ultimately made the Saints world champions. While Morstead's name was already etched in NFL lore after just 19 games, he didn't stop there.
Before the 2012 season, Morstead signed a six-year extension. He responded with an All-Pro campaign. Then, he became the highest-paid punter in the league in 2018. Morstead worked to be seen as the consistent presence for the Saints when things went wrong for Drew Brees and the offense. When New Orleans had to punt the ball away, at least it had one of the best in the league to do it. Morstead also became an undeniable fan favorite, because of his many years spent with the franchise, as well as because of his charitable contributions off the field. But not everything can last forever.
Despite all of the on-field success over 11 years, Morstead's career took a quick turn in 2020. After recording a career-low 43.1 yards per punt at the age of 34, the Saints made the tough decision to cut their longtime fourth-down diamond.
It was a brutal blow, but Morstead said he saw the faint writing on the wall. He noticed the team kept rookie punter Blake Gillikin on roster by placing him on injured reserve at the beginning of the 2020 season, and he felt like he was behind the eight ball from the beginning of the campaign due to injury.
"I had a really rough year, I got hurt prior to training camp in July of 2020. So it was just hard for me to get over the hump during the season, I kinda felt like I was just trying to survive as opposed to going out and doing what I normally do," Morstead said. "That, and I was the highest-paid player in the league at my position at the time, COVID, the cap went way down, just a lot of things that coincided all at once. Just was a tough situation. I guess I knew that there was probably going to be some sort of change or something was going to have to give, but I just didn't know how that would go down."
Even reflecting on that moment now is tough for Morstead, but it forced him to deal with some tough issues. Was he going to lay down and accept what could be fate? Or was he going to prove to himself, his family and the rest of the football world that he was still one of the best?
"It was very difficult," said Morstead. "It's not something I wanted to happen, but so goes life, and I did my best to absorb the punch and took some time to sort myself out and decided that I wanted to try to keep it going.
"I've got kids that are old enough to know what's going on. They see Dad get fired, and how's he going to respond? That was one thing that I really valued, the opportunity to turn that adversity into opportunity."
It didn't take long for him to make his decision. Morstead was going to wait for the next play, and win it.
Days before Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season, the New York Jets called Morstead. He knew he would just be an injury replacement for Braden Mann, but he didn't really care. This was the opportunity for him to get back in the game, and show everyone he was not only healthy, but that he was not experiencing any decline related to age. Morstead did just that.
While the veteran played in just seven games for the Jets, he averaged 48.2 yards per punt. To put that into perspective, 48.2 yards per punt over a full year would have ranked as his fourth best season ever in that category, and was in top 10 territory overall that season.
It was a successful reintroduction to the NFL. Morstead waved to the fans, took a bow and waited for that next phone call.
No one could have expected who would call Morstead next. A rival that he tried to defeat two times a year for over a decade: the Atlanta Falcons. Morstead attacked this opportunity with a different kind of vigor. In his first outing with Atlanta, he downed three of five punts inside the 20 in a Week 12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"First game of my tenure there, I got Player of the Week in the NFC, and then the next four games I got Player of the Month," said Morstead. "So it was really nice for me to get some of those accolades and put myself back on the radar, and it led to me having some opportunity this offseason. It was a challenging time for me and my family, I was back and forth and not seeing my wife and kids very much, but it was what was required for me to get my foot back in the door."
According to the Falcons' write-up on his NFC Special Teams Player of the Month award, TruMedia data showed Atlanta's opponents had the second-worst starting field position in December following Morstead's boots. He took over as Atlanta's punter for the rest of the season.
"It was kind of the last place I ever thought I'd end up playing as a Saint for all those years," said Morstead. "But Terry Fontenot the GM and head coach (Arthur Smith) all the way down, it was a great experience for me as much as Saints fans may hate to hear that."
Following the 2021 season, Morstead said he "absolutely" thought he would be re-signing with the Falcons. However, after watching their offseason, with the team's reported pursuit of quarterback Deshaun Watson and the following trade of Matt Ryan, he had a gut feeling that he would be playing elsewhere in 2022. What Morstead was able to do during his time in the ATL, however, is show the league that he was still one of the best punters around.
Morstead parlayed his unique 2021 season into another chance to be a starter for a team looking to win right now in the Dolphins.
"Last year was tremendously challenging for me," said Morstead. "Trying to validate that I was healthy and back to my old ways of playing. I was able to do that and I'm excited about having a chance this year with a little bit of stability. I feel like I've got a great shot to not only individually do something special, but as a team do something special."
Morstead isn't thinking about retirement in his move to South Beach. In fact, he's somewhat found new life. He said it was important for him to find a team that's trying to win right now, because he wants to do the same.
"I'm excited," Morstead said when asked how it felt to be a Dolphin. "I enjoyed a lot of stability early in my career, 12 years all in one place, but it certainly is a bit rejuvenating being in a new location with new teammates, new coaches, new surroundings, you know, everything is new. So I'm excited to be a part of it."
In Miami, Morstead will be working with 39-year-old, first-year head coach Mike McDaniel, who was born just three years and two days before him.
"Mike is the first coach for me that's very, very close to my age, so it's kind of cool having a head coach that's my generation so to speak," Morstead said.
Despite the new city, the new uniform and the new atmosphere, not everything has changed for Morstead. He's still looking to win that next play.
"I'd love to keep my streak of being in the top 10 in net average going, but I don't know that that's a high enough goal honestly," Morstead responded when asked of his goals for the 2022 season. "I'm feeling really good. I feel like I got a good mojo going with our snapper and kicker and I'm excited to be part of a new regime here in Miami. I'd love to be in the top five, that's been historically my goal every year, it's kind of a line to be at. But again, it's just making plays when the team needs you to make a play. A lot of those plays aren't sexy or exciting, they're fair catches for 47 yards right in the corner. So I'm just hoping to be super stable and provide elite consistency at the position and hopefully do a good enough job that the team says, 'Man, we gotta keep this guy around moving forward.'"
While so much has happened over the last year, where he's at in life is not lost on Morstead. The competitive fire, the confidence, the will to succeed is all still there. He understands he's fortunate to be able to do what he does, so he's going to attack this season the same way he always has.
"I think I've always had a chip on my shoulder," said Morstead. "Look, at the end of the day, this job, this career, it's just such an awesome thing that I wish everybody could experience it. But that's why it's so special, so few get to be a part of it. If there's not a sense of urgency now, you're just not going to stick around in this league. At the end of the day, I love doing all the stuff that it takes to be great at the job. I love the workouts, I love the training, being a part of the team and it's one of the most unique work environments you can possibly have a chance to be in.
"When the train's over and you're done playing, it's done. So I just really have this internal thing about maximizing this. I'm not playing it begrudgingly. I love doing it. And I love competing, and as long as I can provide value to a team, I want to keep doing it as long as I can."