Football isn't the most international of sports, not like baseball, basketball, hockey and the rest, but it seems to have developed a taste for, of all things, Australian punters. There's Mat McBriar in Dallas and Ben Graham in Arizona — not to mention Chris Bryan, who's vying for a job with the New York Jets after spending some time in Tampa last season.
The Washington Redskins even have an Aussie punter these days — free agent pickup Sav Rocca, late of the Philadelphia Eagles. Say this for Rocca: He knows how to boot the ball, any which way you like. At Wednesday's workout, for instance, he took over the kicking duties when Graham Gano left unexpectedly because his wife went into labor. Sav's one field goal try went right down the middle, and his kickoffs and on-side kicks were more than acceptable.
"I've hit a 50-yarder before in practice," he said, "with a three-pronged thing [as the holder]. With a [real] holder it's a little different."
Not that he's looking for more work. At 37, he's perfectly content to be entering his fifth year as an NFL punter - after spending the previous 18 seasons in the rough-and-tumble world of Australian rules football. There are few better incubators for punters, it seems, than the Aussie game, which relies even more heavily on the foot than American football does.
"That game is a kicking game," said Danny Smith, the Redskins' special teams coach. "You've got guys kicking on the run, booting the ball from weird positions, kicking under pressure ... and developing tremendous leg strength. Then they get over here, of course, and it's all about perfect drops and [staying] stationary, that kind of thing."
What's going on with Australian punters is a little like what went on four decades ago, when soccer-style kicking first came into fashion. Soccer wasn't that big in this country in the '60s and '70s, so NFL teams imported kickers from Europe, Mexico - anywhere they could find them. (Soon enough, though, the U.S. began producing plenty of soccer-stylers of its own.)
"They travel in packs," Smith said of the Aussie punters. "I'll get a call, and they'll say, 'Danny, we're in Orlando, Fla, We're headed to D.C. There's 11 of us. Can you work us out?' I've probably looked at 18 to 25 of them. A lot of 'em are good. A lot of 'em are also very unorthodox. It's just a matter of whether they can take to the disciplines of our game."
That's essentially how it began for Rocca. His body had been pretty well worn out by the Australian game, he decided, but he thought he might be able to make it in the NFL as a punter. And the pay in America, even a minimum salary, was a lot better than in Australia, where a 10-year veteran might earn $80,000.
Besides, McBriar and Graham already had blazed the trail - as had Darren Bennett (San Diego Chargers/Miami Dolphins, 1995-2003) before them. Heck, if you want to go further back, Colin Ridgway, pride of Melbourne, punted briefly for the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. And if you want to go really far back, Pat O'Dea, the celebrated "Kangaroo Kicker," came out of Victoria in the 1890s to star at Wisconsin, where he boomed a 62-yard field goal with the rugby-shaped ball and could punt the length of the field.
Rocca hasn't made the Pro Bowl like Bennett and McBriar have (twice each), but he's finished in the upper half of punters the past three seasons, posting net averages of 37.9, 38.3 and 39 yards. That's certainly better than the Redskins' punters did in those years (33.4, 36.1 and 33.7).
He also, at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, has the kind of heft Smith looks for at the position. As Smith put it, "When you've got a big, strong guy, their misses aren't [usually] terrible punts. They don't kill you. Sometimes, if you have little guys — and everybody misses 'em — their misses can hurt you, field position-wise."
The transition from Aussie ball to American ball had its trials, Rocca said. "I had to really learn quickly when I came over here. The sports are very different, and the terminology is very different. I knew I could kick the ball far, but to do it consistently was a challenge in the beginning. In Australia, you see, we used to kick the ball, but it was never from a standing start, never off two steps, and you never had to worry about getting it off inside two seconds. I've got a good grasp of it now, I think, but you can't take anything for granted, because it comes back and bites you in the backside."
Which is why Rocca happily pinch-kicked Wednesday when Gano was called to the hospital. This, after all, is NFL — the big time. The more you can do ...
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