Paul Domowitch: Birds making punter Henry earn his job

Mat McBriar, a two-time Pro Bowl punter with Dallas, is in Eagles camp to compete with Chas Henry. MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mat McBriar, a two-time Pro Bowl punter with Dallas, is in Eagles camp to compete with Chas Henry. MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: August 03, 2012

BETHLEHEM – NFL teams give starting jobs to undrafted rookies about as often as Ryan Howard gets wood on a low-and-outside breaking ball.

But last year, the Eagles gift-wrapped their punting job and handed it to Chas Henry the day he signed with the team.

They let their old punter, 37-year-old free agent Sav Rocca, walk, signed Henry and informed him that unless he got caught running naked across the Lehigh campus or made remarks about Joe Banner's height, he would be the team's season-opening punter.

"That doesn't happen very often," Henry said. "Undrafted guy that gets a starting job in the NFL? That really doesn't happen too many times without competition.''

It definitely won't be happening this summer. After watching the kid struggle through an inconsistent rookie season, the Eagles are giving Henry all the competition he can handle this camp, signing two-time Pro Bowl punter Mat McBriar last week.

Henry, who averaged 45.1 yards per attempt his senior year at Florida and won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top collegiate punter, finished 25th in the league in gross average (42.9) and 27th in net average (36.9) as a rookie.

His 19 punts inside the 20 were the sixth fewest in the league. His nine touchbacks were the second most.

“He did OK," special-teams coordinator Bobby April said, making "OK" sound as appetizing as a 2 a.m. rest-stop hamburger. "He has a lot of areas he's got to be better at to help our defense. He's aware of them. He's working on them.

“Not many rookies punt very well in this league. He got acclimated as the holder [for kicker Alex Henery, a fellow rookie] and was punting pretty well [by the end of the season]. But he's got to improve. He's got to improve some areas that push that line of scrimmage further away from our goal line."

If he doesn't, then the 33-year-old McBriar, who spent eight seasons with the Cowboys before being released earlier this year, could end up being the Eagles' season-opening punter.

McBriar has been one of the league's premier punters, averaging 45.3 yards per attempt during his career, and 47.2 from 2006 through ‘10.

He developed a cyst behind the knee of his non-kicking leg last year, which pressed on a nerve and made it difficult to lift the front of his foot.

His gross average dropped from 47.9 in 2010 to 43.8 last year, and his net average from 41.7 to 36.1. He was placed on injured reserve in late December and had surgery to remove the cyst in February.

April said Henry and McBriar will split the punting reps evenly at training camp and in the four preseason games. May the best man win.

"I definitely want competition," April said. "I want [Henry] to elevate his game. Because he's a good punter. He's a talented guy. He's just got to be a little more consistent.''

Said Henry: “If you don't want competition in the NFL, this is the wrong sport.''

Henry suspected the Eagles would bring another punter in to push him. The fact that it's somebody as good as McBriar caught him a little off guard.

“He's a good punter," he said. "The stats show it. I'm fine with that. I figured they would bring a veteran in. I didn't know it was going to be McBriar. He's a great punter. But I'm looking forward to competing with him and learning from him.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody. I want to do my best to stay here. I love playing for this organization and this town. It's a lot of fun."

Last year, the Eagles decided to go younger – and cheaper – at both punter and kicker. They replaced 36-year-old David Akers with Henery, whom they selected in the fourth round of the draft. Then they signed Henry to replace Rocca.

But for missing two makable field-goal attempts in a one-point, Week 4 loss to the 49ers, Henery had a good rookie season, hitting 24 of 27 attempts.

Henry was less consistent, too often following one good punt with a poor one.

"I thought I ended the season really well," he said. "The beginning of the season, I was a rookie out there. I was nervous. But I really started to settle down the last half of the year, and felt really comfortable with everything. And my stats really showed it toward the end of the year."

They did. In the Eagles' last five games, Henry averaged 44.3 yards per attempt.

"I talked to Andy [Reid] and Bobby at the end of the year last year," he said. "Their whole thing was consistency and working on eliminating those 30-yard punts and turning them into 38-yard ones. And the 40-yard punts, making them 45.

“You don't have to hit a 55-, 60-yard punt every time. You don't have to do that. A 42-, 43-, 44-yarder that gets no return, that takes the returner out of the game. It doesn't matter whether you're playing against Devin Hester or a junior-high kid."

Henry knows he also needs to do a better job of pinning opponents against their own goal line. In the last three seasons, McBriar put an impressive 41.5 percent of his attempts inside the 20. Last year with Washington, Rocca put a league-best 42.4 percent of his punts inside the 20.

In the last four seasons, Rocca has just 11 touchbacks in 292 punts, only one last year.

Henry said he watched a lot of film during the offseason of Rocca and other top "pooch" punters.

"The guys that are really good at it are the ones you want to learn from," he said. "So that's what I've been trying to do this offseason. Learn from those guys and learn who does something really well and try to mimic what they do."

Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @PDomo. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at www.eagletarian.com.

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