The Chris Kluwe case is about a lot more than football. It’s about homophobia and employment law and the way our society is changing to become more tolerant of gays and less tolerant of those who espouse the types of anti-gay views that have long been commonplace in locker rooms.
But it is at least partially about football, and the part about football is the weakest portion of the memo released by the Vikings on Friday night. That portion is headlined, “Kluwe’s 2012 Statistics vs. Career Statistics,” and it attempts to make a case using statistics that Kluwe was declining as a punter. The attempt fails. Badly.
The statistical case against Kluwe begins like this: “Kluwe’s 12 fair catches in 2012 were the third fewest of his career, nearly 3 fair catches below his pre-2012 season average of 14.7. Also, Kluwe’s longest punt of 2012 – 59 yards – was 4 yards shorter than what he averaged during his first seven seasons in the NFL.”
Those are silly criteria by which to judge a punter. A decline in fair catches could easily be the result of a strategy to kick out of bounds, and judging a punter by his longest punt is downright foolish. Anyone who has even a vague understanding of football strategy understands that a punter’s job isn’t just to kick the ball as far as he can. Kluwe had several punts that could have been longer than 59 yards, except that Kluwe dropped them inside the 20-yard line instead of kicking them into the end zone. For instance, in the same game in which Kluwe booted that 59-yarder (Week One against Jacksonville), he also had a 53-yard punt to the Jaguars’ 12-yard line. If Kluwe had kicked that ball 12 yards farther, it would have been a 65-yard punt, his longest in five years. But it also would have been a worse punt because it would have been a touchback, rather than being dropped inside the 20.
The statistical case also criticizes Kluwe for not having enough punts downed inside the 20 — while conveniently overlooking that Kluwe also had the fewest touchbacks of his career. And the statistical case against Kluwe overlooks the fact that Kluwe punted just 72 times in 2012, his fewest punts in any of the seven seasons in which he played all 16 games. The reason, of course, is that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had an MVP season in 2012, rushing for 2,097 yards. The Vikings didn’t punt as much as usual because they had a running back churning out first downs. And yet it’s supposed to be Kluwe’s fault that he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to down the ball inside the 20?
There’s no single statistic that can perfectly quantify a punter’s performance, and every punting statistic is affected by things outside the punter’s control like the quality of his coverage units and how often his team punts inside its opponents’ territory. But the best single stat to use for a punter is his net punting average. Kluwe had a career-high 39.7-yard net punting average in his last season with the Vikings. That fact is nowhere to be found in the memo released by the Vikings.
None of this is to say Kluwe wasn’t cut for his performance. You can make a strong case that Jeff Locke, the punter drafted by the Vikings to replace Kluwe in 2013, is a better punter than Kluwe. And he’s unquestionably a cheaper punter than Kluwe; he made $405,000 last year while Kluwe was slated to make $1.4 million. It’s entirely possible that the Vikings are telling the truth when they say they cut Kluwe solely for football reasons.
But the statistical case against Kluwe is weak. If that was the best that the writers of the memo could come up with, they should have left it out.