Thomas Morstead rarely felt like himself this season.
The mortar of a right leg Morstead has displayed in seven years in New Orleans was far from full strength, limited by a strained quadriceps suffered against Dallas that robbed Morstead of two full games and his traditional kickoff duties the rest of the season.
Forced to kick with a leg at less than full strength, Morstead averaged 45.6 yards per punt, the second-worst average of his career, and started to feel normal in the only final week or two of the regular season. Because of the injury and his absence for two weeks — when the Saints used Brandon Fields as a fill-in — New Orleans dropped from second in the NFL in net punting average to 15th.
“In a lot of ways, it was a frustrating year, individually and teamwise,” Morstead said the day after the end of the regular season. “What’s really though is when you’re out there, people kind of forget that you’re hurt. You’re not on the injury report anymore. It’s just dealing with that and handling that.”
Morstead’s overall numbers — a 40.7-yard net average, 14 fair catches, 20 kicks inside the 20 — all ended up at or near the standards he’s set in New Orleans.
But the punter would be the first to say his performance wasn’t the same. When Morstead came back after a two-week absence, he and special teams coordinator Greg McMahon realized he had to change his kicking style, and the shift led to a few more shanks and missed kicks than Saints fans are used to seeing from the always-reliable Morstead.
“We really put an emphasis on directional punting this year, because I didn’t feel like I could kick it as high or as far as normal,” Morstead said. “With those, you’re going to have some shorter kicks sometimes, but I felt like we handled it as best we could.”
The hint that Morstead wasn’t 100 percent should have been obvious.
Despite the fact that kicker Kai Forbath is no kickoff specialist, the Saints kept using him on kickoffs instead of Morstead, whose strong leg normally makes him a touchback machine. After Morstead injured his leg on a kickoff against Dallas, though, New Orleans shied away from putting him back in that position.
“You’d have known I was healthy if I was kicking off,” Morstead said. “I love kicking off, it gives me more flow to my game. I probably could have kicked off the last week or two if they’d asked me to.”
Under normal circumstances, Morstead’s injury-limited season might not draw close scrutiny.
But the Saints need to find some ways to get under a salary cap that’s projected to peak around $150 million to $153 million this offseason, and Morstead is scheduled to count $4.45 million against the cap next year. If New Orleans released Morstead in a salary-cap move, the Saints could shave $3.25 million off of their cap number.
The Monday after the season ended, Morstead hadn’t given a thought to his contraction situation or talked to anybody in the front office about it. A lot like quarterback Drew Brees, Morstead would rather decline comment on his contract.
But it’s clear that Morstead feels at home in New Orleans.
“Coach McMahon, I love that guy. I’ll be at his grandkid’s wedding one day if I get the invite,” Morstead said. “To have had the amount of time with the same coach, same head coach, same GM, to feel the appreciation that they’ve had, it’s been really nice, and I haven’t taken that for granted at all.”
When he’s fully healthy, Morstead is still one of the best punters in the league.
And he said he believes that he’s just hitting his stride after his seventh season in the NFL.
“I definitely look forward to coming back,” Morstead said. “Just talking to guys around the league, I know 30’s old for a lot of players, but for a punter, it’s pretty young.”