John Smallwood | Between a Rocca & a hard choice

AUSSIE PUNTER FACES FIRST GAME, COMPETITION FROM VETERAN

Posted: August 09, 2007

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The ideal solution would be if the Eagles could somehow combine rookie Sav Rocca's rocket leg with the technique and experience of veteran Dirk Johnson.

Then the Birds would have some kind of Frankenstein's super punter.

But that's just wishful thinking and, ultimately, the Birds are going to have to make a decision between upside and consistency.

And frankly, considering NFL coaches and their obsessive desire to have everything run like clockwork, Rocca, a legend in Australian Rules Football, would be likely to come up on the short end if it comes down to that decision.

With everything else in his head, the last thing Eagles coach Andy Reid wants to worry about is whether his punter is going to launch a 65-yard bomb or shank it to the left.

"Absolutely, it's about consistency and being able to get the punt off every time," said Rocca, who is already developing a cult following with Eagles fans despite not yet making one NFL punt. "Being consistent is the key factor."

That's why Rocca can't wait until the preseason opener at the Baltimore Ravens on Monday.

He's been through individual workouts, he's been through minicamps, and for the past 2 weeks he's been at Lehigh for training camp.

But nothing can adequately simulate what will happen on Monday when Rocca will get his first action in an NFL game.

It will be the moment when Rocca and the Eagles begin to figure out where he is and how far he has to go.

"That's what I can't wait for," said Rocca, who at 6-5, 265 pounds looks more like a linebacker than a punter. "I'm looking forward to it, and I don't know what to expect, either.

"I do know what's coming, but I don't know what the future holds at the moment, so let's go."

If you look at it logically, despite Johnson being the Birds' punter for the past four seasons, the job is almost Rocca's to lose. Nobody on the coaching staff will say it, but they are hoping they've got lightning in a bottle.

They hope Rocca can be like former Pro Bowl punter Darren Bennett, who made the NFL's 1990s All-Decade team after transitioning from Australian Rules Football, or like New York Jets punter and former Australian Rules player Ben Graham. After becoming the NFL's oldest rookie ever at 31 in 2005, Graham signed a 6-year contract extension.

The Eagles didn't sign Rocca, who played 15 seasons in the AFL for Collingwood and North Melbourne, as a gimmick. You don't bring a 33-year-old rookie halfway across the world unless you think he's got some serious potential.

Rocca's booming kicks have drawn applause from "savvy" Eagles fans during training camp.

"It's a challenge for me," Rocca said of why he would want to try to make the NFL at an age when most players are contemplating retirement. "I've always wanted to achieve the highest that I can.

"I've always had a strong leg and [the NFL] in the punting role requires a strong leg, so I thought I'd give it a go."

But a strong leg alone won't be enough. If Rocca can't master the intricacies and nuances of the NFL game, he's not going to be of much use to the Eagles.

Johnson only ranked 24th among NFL punters last season, but the Eagles know what to expect from him: He won't be spectacular but he will rarely hurt them.

"[Johnson] has hit some deep balls and is looking very good," said Eagles placeicker David Akers, who works with the punters every day in camp. "You see Sav sometimes not being as consistent, but he has such a strong leg that his bad balls to our eyes actually aren't that bad on the field.

"He might hit a bad ball but it goes 42 yards or 4.3 [seconds] hanging, and you're like, 'Really.' You look at those things and say, 'That's pretty good.' ''

Akers, who also has an interest in the punters' competition because whoever wins likely will be his holder, said what he sees is, "two quality punters who I think both will be playing in this league somewhere.

"I think Sav's got such a powerful leg, that he is an absolute weapon. But Dirk, on the other hand, has really gotten into his directional punting and is doing a great job at that.

"Those things being the case, you could flip a coin right now because you've got two great guys. You've got one guy who's being real consistent and another who hit a 70-yard punt.

"That being said, I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision on it." *

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smallwj@phillynews.com.

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