METAIRIE - In his second NFL season in 2010, New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead posted the kind of numbers that in most years might have earned him a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Morstead, who is built more like a linebacker than a punter, averaged 45.9 yards a kick - the sixth-highest average in the entire league - with a career-long of 64 yards.
He also had a net average of 38.4 yards, which is the yardage of a punt minus return yards or yards subtracted for a kick that winds up in the end zone for a touchback.
Unfortunately, Morstead plays in the same conference with Dallas Cowboys punter Mat McBriar. He had an impressive 47.9 gross average with a 41.7 net to earn the NFC invitation to the annual all-star game.
“Obviously, you look at your own stats when the season is over ? but I really wasn’t disappointed,” said Morstead, who has a goal of making it to his first Pro Bowl as he heads into his third pro season.
To Morstead, a former SMU star, there are more important things on his punchlist of goals: like doing his job on a consistent basis when called on and being a valuable weapon for the Saints week in and week out.
“For me, every week my goal is to hear your coaches say, ?Man, I’m glad we had our punter today and not theirs,’” he said. “From week to week, you want them to say you gave your team an advantage. But yeah, the Pro Bowl is in my sights for sure.”
While Morstead’s punting average was up last year over his rookie season of 2009, when he averaged 43.6 yards with a net of 36.0, he wasn’t as effective on kickoffs.
He recorded only 10 touchbacks after having 27 - the fourth-most in the league - on kickoffs when he emerged as a rookie.
That’s because he injured his left shoulder on the first punt of the first 2010 preseason game while tackling New England’s Julian Edelman after a long return. It was one of three injuries Morstead dealt with last season.
The shoulder injury that bothered him all season and eventually required surgery didn’t hamper him when he punted, but it affected his kickoffs as a right-footed kicker swings his left arm outwardly while approaching the ball.
With kickoffs moved up this year from the 30 to the 35-yard line, Morstead is hoping to be more of a weapon for the Saints and keep more balls from being brought out of the end zone.
Of course, his first job is punting.
“I thought I did pretty well last year, the punting was pretty good,” said Morstead. “But I’ve got some pretty lofty goals for this year. I feel good, and it’s nice to feel healthy for the first time in a year. So I guess we’ll see.”
Morstead is hoping to make another leap like he did from his first season to his second while having an even bigger impact as a punter and a kickoff man after the rules change.
“I want to see more improvement in my punting and with the new kickoff rules I feel like I can have an even bigger impact on the game now as far as the two coverage units - both punts and kickoffs - go,” he said. “If I do my job at a very high level, I can take other teams out of the game.”
He hopes to do that by improving his coffin-corner and directional kicking, which he worked on hard this spring. Since the start of training camp, he’s shown off a new trick - punting end over end.
“I didn’t do it at all my first year and maybe four times last year,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with it and now I do.”
That’ll only help make him a more effective punter, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said.
“Here’s the encouraging thing with him: every year he wants to get better,” he said. “In his mind, and in our mind, he’s got room to improve. He comes to work every day really motivated to get better, and that’s a mark of a good pro.”
As he begins his third season, Morstead said he also hopes he’s earned a level of respect from his older teammates.
He shouldn’t have to worry about that after coming up with one of the Super Bowl’s all-time plays when he perfectly executed an onside kick to start the second half. The Saints recovered the ball, and went down and scored a touchdown that changed the complexion of the contest.
Morstead has certainly become a crowd favorite, partly because of the kick. When asked if he’s recognized around town, he couldn’t help but laugh.
“People don’t usually recognize me, I think, because I’m kind of big for a kicker,” he said with a smile. “A lot of people mistake me for (defensive end) Jeff Charleston.
“The fans who recognize me say all sorts of stuff about the (onside) kick. They’re just very thankful, and it’ll be a lifelong memory for me as well as a lifetime memory for all Saints fans.”