Redskins look to Australia for a punter

Down Under, Sav Rocca was in the middle of the action.

You might not understand his stats, but he had a load of them:

748 ”goals,” 1,871 ”kicks,” 1,318 ”marks,” 2,360

”disposals,” 411 ”behinds,” 219 ”tackles” – all in 257 games

over 15 seasons with the Collingwood Magpies and the North

Melbourne Kangaroos of the Australian Football League.

Now he is in the NFL as the punter for the Washington Redskins,

and he spends most of the game just standing on the sideline.

”That was probably one of the biggest adjustments that I had to

make,” Rocca said. ”Apart from the terminology and learning the

new rules and sport, the other adjustment was you could have a

period of over an hour without kicking in a game. You have to be

ready to go out, and you might be ready and you’re not required to

go out. It’s one of those things that I really had to get used

to.”

The other big adjustment? Not being a star. But that’s not too

bad.

”I was used to being one of the more well-known and bigger

players in Australia, and you come here and it’s not like that,”

he said. ”I think I prefer it, not being quite so

well-known.”

OK, there were other adjustments when Rocca became part of the

Australian wave of punters migrating to the NFL.

The ball is more pointy and less soft. Helmets and pads are

required. He had to learn how to be a holder, a near-mandatory

perquisite for a punter these days.

The pay is much better, enough for Rocca to bring his wife and

three sons to the United States for a new life after he retired

from the AFL. He became the oldest rookie in NFL history when he

signed at the age of 33 with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rocca was middle-of-the-pack with the Eagles, averaging 42.9

yards with a 37.6 net to rank 19th and 15th, respectively, among

all NFL punters over his four seasons. He became a free agent at

the end of last year and had to go back to Australia during the

lockout – because his work visa isn’t valid unless he has a job in

the U.S.

The Redskins signed Rocca once the lockout was over, and he

missed the start of training camp while awaiting a new visa. He

said it usually takes two to three weeks to clear all the red tape,

but the NFL helped expedite the process. He missed only two days

after veteran free agents became eligible to practice.

The Redskins could care less about the late arrival – as long as

he sticks around. And they’ll gladly take the run-of-the-mill

numbers he had with the Eagles.

Why? Because Washington is the worst punting team of the

millennium. Last in overall average (40.9) since 2000. Last in net

average (34.5) since 2002.

The Redskins have used 14 punters in regular season games since

1999 – not counting placekickers called into emergency duty because

of injuries. They’ve gone through seven punters over the past four

years, including three (Hunter Smith, Sam Paulescu and Josh

Bidwell) last season.

”I don’t like that turning over guys like that,” special teams

coach Danny Smith said. ”I don’t have a problem with young guys. I

don’t have a problem with old guys. I just want it consistent, and

we haven’t been about to do that. Hopefully we’ve solidified that

with this guy.”

Rocca’s hang time is already getting a thumbs-up from his fellow

special teams players.

”He’s putting the thing up the air, like, 4.5 (seconds),”

linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. ”Last year we were covering

punts that were, like, 3.9. He had a 5.0 one day. I’m glad we have

him. It’s going to make it a lot easier to get down there and make

a lot of good tackles.”

Rocca said one of his biggest challenges is maintaining his

technique. The drop must be perfect. He can’t overstride. It’s a

more exact motion than the one he practiced in the AFL, where he

would kick on the run while dodging defenders.

But Smith says it’s that type of experience that helps the

Aussie punters do so well in the NFL. Darren Bennett helped pave

the way playing for San Diego and Minnesota from 1995-2005, and now

there’s Mat McBriar (Dallas) and Ben Graham (Arizona).

”They’ve been in the heat of battle,” Smith said. ”They’ve

had to catch, run, throw, as opposed to just being in our American

colleges and sitting back there punting. They’re good with their

hands; they’re good with their feet.”

Rocca also isn’t afraid to make a tackle, but he’s only had six

in his NFL career. That’s a walk in the park compared to his

rough-and-tumble times in the AFL.

”I think the hits that you get in the NFL are a lot a bigger,”

he said, ”but I think that’s because you’ve got a helmet and pads

on. If you take the helmet and pads off, then you’re not going to

lead with your head. If you made both sides even with what they’re

wearing, it becomes an even battle.”

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP