INDIANAPOLIS – Colts players were not able to visit the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center until just a day or so before training camp started on August 1.
When players did report, smiles abounded. One of the first players in was punter Pat McAfee. The smile on his face was not unusual. Rarely is he seen without one.
McAfee is one of the most engaging players in the club's 28-year era in Indianapolis. What accompanied McAfee also when he reported back in late July was a confidence to make this one of his better seasons. He was not shy about saying it in July.
"Surprisingly, people will see more confidence in me this year," he said at that time. "I'm coming into this season with the most confidence I've had. Last year, I had kind of a down year for me. I didn't like it. I got to work this off-season. I'm confident, and I am ready. This year, I'm going to go out there, do my thing, try to help out as much as possible."
McAfee's second year with the club did not bring the results that were pleasing to him. He punted 65 times for a 42.0 average (35.4 net), and he had 21 kicks inside the 20 along with seven touchbacks. McAfee had 16 touchbacks on kickoffs, a respectable number, but 11 of those came in consecutive games early in the season. He had five touchbacks in a game two victory over the New York Giants, tying Adam Vinatieri's post-Merger record for the most in a single-game, then he topped it the next week with six at Denver. McAfee had eight games with a 40.0 average with a minimum of three punts.
His numbers in 2010 were not cause for over-reaction, but the downward turn from his 2009 rookie totals (64 punts, 44.3 average, 37.8 net, 21 punts inside the 20, 21 touchbacks) were enough that McAfee toiled diligently during the off-season. That diligence brought a firm, positive outlook.
"I had a lot of confidence coming into this year because I put in a lot of work in the off-season," said McAfee. "The lockout kind of allowed me an opportunity to travel a little bit and work with a guy that I've worked with since college. I made the most of my lockout. I put in work on everything, and I learned some things about punting that I really didn't know. I was a pretty raw punter two years ago. I was still learning. This off-season I put in some work to learn some technical things I didn't have. It really helped me out with confidence. Whenever you're a kicker or punter and you have confidence, it's really the biggest thing. The way you get confidence is by practicing."
His adjustments were minor by estimation, but they have helped dramatically.
"It's such a little thing that you can learn that can really change everything, from your drop or your approach," said McAfee. "It's such a small margin of error when it comes to punting. If you mess up one thing, it can ruin everything. If you can perfect one thing, it can really help a lot of things. I learned a couple of little things and tips that have really been a huge difference for me this year."
McAfee this year through 10 games has authored a nice response to 2010, and he has lived up to his prediction of improvement. He is averaging 47.4 yards on 59 punts, including a 39.2 net average. McAfee has 15 punts inside the 20, compared to three touchbacks. His 47.4 average ranks sixth in the AFC and ninth in the NFL, and he is tied-for-14th in league punts inside the 20. His net average ranks ninth in the conference and 16th in the NFL.
Weekly, McAfee has been booming his punts. He held a 46.8 average on six efforts in the opener at Houston. He followed that with a 52.0 average on four punts against Cleveland. He posted a 55.4 average on five punts against Kansas City and twice else (at Cincinnati, 4-52.0; versus Atlanta, 9-50.1) topped a 50.0 average. His 451 punting yards against the Falcons set a club single-game record.
McAfee, like other kickers, has seen a boon in kickoff numbers with the spot of kicks moving this year from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. He has 25 touchbacks on 34 adjusted kickoffs (subtracting one onside effort), a percentage of 73.5 that ties for second-best in the NFL. The club's percentage is tied with Kansas City and ranks behind only Denver (76.7). McAfee has reached the end zone with every kickoff other than an onside attempt against Cleveland. His 97.1 percentage of reaching the end zone tops the league and is well beyond the NFL's 83.5 percent average in the category.
"I think it's been a good year," said McAfee. "I still have a couple of little things I can do better. Granted, I would rather have a horrible season and us win 10 games than what's going on now. I'm just doing my best to help, just keep doing my thing and hopefully keep improving. I hope I improve throughout my career, not just week to week."
Head Coach Jim Caldwell has been pleased with McAfee's performance this season. The punter/kicker has proven to be a reliable weapon.
"Pat has been, obviously, deadly at times for us, just in terms of getting us that long, high punt when we need him," said Caldwell. "He's been a guy that certainly has helped us a tremendous amount. He's gotten to be a very, very consistent guy who has been able to kind of place the ball where he wants, not only from a punting standpoint, but then you look at what he does in terms of drive start average for kickoffs. He's been able to kick that thing out of the end zone where we've had fewer returns, which certainly does indeed help our defense to keep people backed up in their own territory, or at least start backed up in their own territory. He's been valuable, and then you look at what he does in terms of holding. So all three phases, he's a pretty important part of our team."
Kicker Adam Vinatieri feels McAfee is a tremendous asset for the special teams and defense. Vinatieri claims it is a by-product of McAfee's driven nature.
"He's having a great year," said Vinateri. "Statistically, he's punting the ball really well. He's kicking the ball off real well. He's a big factor why our special teams are where they're at. His ability to hit the ball down the field and making touchbacks on kickoffs, that helps our field position and our defense with drive starts. He's been a great teammate and great on the field as well. He's a highly-motivated guy all the way around. I don't think anything's changed from years past. I think he's always been a highly-motivated guy. This off-season, he really focused in on his craft. You can see that he's got a lot of control of the ball and where he wants to hit it. He's definitely helping us out."
Caldwell sees McAfee's natural personality, but he believes McAfee's passion for his work and competition trumps all else.
"He's always been serious about his craft," said Caldwell. "There's never been a time when you've ever had that in question. He enjoys the game and loves what he's doing. … When he first came here he was dedicated. He's one of those guys that oftentimes you might have to protect him from himself, because he'll punt all day long if you let him. Pat's a very, very good, quality member of our team."
There is no part of the game that excludes McAfee's passion, and that goes for when he occasionally develops into the club's last line of defense. McAfee has five special teams stops this year, a duty Caldwell notes he performs with gusto.
"He gets after it now," said Caldwell. "That's one of the things that you admire and respect about him. When that ball is kicked off or punted and when he comes down, he's coming down with intent to make a tackle. He's not backing away from it. He's going to fill that gap and do all he can to get the guy down on the ground if he gets to him."
ADDAI UPDATE – Running back Joseph Addai practiced on a full basis on Wednesday and his status for Sunday still is to be determined. Addai suffered a hamstring injury early in the October 9 game with Kansas City. He appeared briefly against New Orleans on October 23 in his lone appearance since the injury. Caldwell, on Thursday, thought Addai looked good in the practice session.
"Not certain yet," said Caldwell on how Addai felt today. "Today (Thursday) will be interesting because we are practicing earlier. It was a pretty tough practice last night (Wednesday). We'll see how he goes. I'm sure the medical staff will be somewhat cautious with him as well. … (It) depends on how he is (for how the approach will be on Sunday with him). Hopefully, he will be ready to go and can do everything they ask him (to do)."