Much in the way that scientists can derive historical climate information by studying tree rings and layers of rock, it’s possible to look at a single, small statistic and learn all that one needed to know about past football seasons.
In 2016, Jon Ryan punted 71 times, following seasons of 65, 74, 61 and 68 punts. All those seasons resulted in playoff appearances.
In 2017, Ryan punted 92 times, and the Seahawks missed the playoffs.
Now, I understand that punt frequency is a symptom, not a cause. I do not suggest here than the steady intrusion of Ryan into 2017 games — the only other time in his Seattle tenure he had 90 punts was in 2011, a 7-9 season — is why the Seahawks in the off-season fired six coaches and off-loaded some prominent players in an old Soviet-style purge.
Ryan can tell numerous corny jokes, but he doesn’t clear a room; he tends to fill it.
What 92 punts do suggest is that, a bit like Felix Hernandez’s history of futility with the Mariners, his team’s mediocre play perhaps wore out his 36-year-old Canadian butt. The punt game slid in the second half of the past season with some shorter kicks and longer returns. Not all of that is the responsibility of the punter. But when some meals don’t turn out well, the restaurant owner doesn’t fire the dishwasher.
More seriousluy, when the Seahawks drafted University of Texas star punter Michael Dickson, the change that happened Monday — Ryan was fired, as graciously as possible — was ordained. The Australian is a rare talent who can kick farther, higher and more accurately than perhaps anyone in the game. And as a rookie, he’s more affordable than Ryan at $2.5 million for each of the next two seasons.
✌🏻 Seattle pic.twitter.com/z2MmbVZnHh
— Jon Ryan (@JonRyan9) August 20, 2018
So while Dickson established in camp and the first two fake games that he was the superior punter, there is no evidence to suggest that Dickson can take a hit. Until he does, I remain skeptical.
Of all the majestically hilarious moments in Ryan’s 10-year Seattle tenure, the most vivid display of his Jackie Chan-like ability to survive ridiculous assaults to his person came during the coldest game in the football history of Minnesota.
Most everyone recalls the blown Blair Walsh field goal that preserved Seattle’s 10-9 playoff victory in conditions found typically only on The Weather Channel’s Stupid Week. What I remember was Ryan’s decision to run out a punt that left him upside down with a broken nose:
Ryan’s dubious decision to go airborne got him face-planted so hard that his helmet was shoved upon his nose and broke it. I dare football researchers come up with another NFL game in which a punter broke his nose, particularly one with a blow that can be described as self-inflicted.
Despite the pain, cold and embarrassment, Ryan had his nose crowbarred back in place and finished the game, holding for a PAT and continuing to punt.
You should see the other guy. pic.twitter.com/VFNSNehcu9
— Jon Ryan (@JonRyan9) January 11, 2016
The following week, Ryan attempted to explain the inexplicable to reporters.
“It was one of those plays you hope never happens,” he said. “Low snap. I believed when I got it, if I would have kicked it, it would have been blocked, so I thought it was the right decision. It opened up, then you’ve just got to trust your instincts.
“As an athlete, you never second-guess your instincts. My instinct was to run it up the middle, then when it closed off, I did my best hurdling attempt. Maybe run left, run right would have worked better, but as I tell all the Monday morning quarterbacks, this isn’t Madden, I couldn’t just press L2 and jump outside.
“I’m a middle-aged white guy. It doesn’t quite work that way.”
It was hard to know whether the act or the explanation was more amusing. Together, they were pure Ryan — a smart, highly competitive athlete who finds it impossible to take himself too seriously.
But he always showed the game and his teammates respect by being fully engaged, not some dilettante specialist over on the sidelines checking his phone and waving to women.
He made himself into the best punter in Seahawks history, owning all the major club records. Yet in the 2015 NFC Championship against Green Bay with Seattle down 16-0, he was athletic enough to throw a touchdown pass from his holder position on the field goal unit to an eligible tackle, a preposterous stunt that thoroughly demoralized the Packers.
As obviously significant as was the Super Bowl win over Denver, that TD pass that led to another Super Bowl appearance was the apex moment for the Seahawks’ air of insouciance that made their success so compelling.
The wackiest successful play call in coach Pete Carroll’s Seattle tenure was pulled off by a red-haired guy nicknamed Ginga Ninja who, after the score, did the “discount double-check” gesture from Packers QB Aaron Rodgers’ TV commercial. He did it right at Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who cut Ryan in 2008.
None of these Ryan moments can be taught, scripted, replicated or made illegal.
You’re a helluva punter, Michael Dickson. Work on the lore part of your game. It’s a Seattle punter tradition.