The last couple days we have been looking at players who did not get many opportunities to contribute on the field of play. Guys like Colin Kaepernick, Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person were drafted with the long term in mind. For players like that, this offseason is as big as most any they will face. In his Combine press conference, Coach Harbaugh discussed how the development from year one to year two is the most important because you now have an idea of things and this is your first opportunity to build on that.
Today we return to players who made significant contributions to the 2011 San Francisco 49ers. Our first such player is punter Andy Lee. Special teams often gets overlooked, but long-time readers know that is not the case here at Niners Nation. We have a deep, abiding understanding of the importance of special teams, particularly given how the 49ers struggled in recent years.
The ability to flip field position when the offense is struggling is an extremely under-appreciated art (yes, I'm describing awesome punting and coverage as an art!). The 49ers had a somewhat inconsistent offense in 2011, and yet, the combination of a dominant defense and strong special teams sufficiently made up for that. The 49ers were 13-3 for a variety of reasons and we would be foolish to not count Andy Lee and his coverage unit as one of the reasons for the team's success.
Andy Lee put together a dominant punting season that ranks among the best in NFL history. He set an NFL single season record with a 44.0 net punting average, and was third in NFL history (first in 49ers history) with a 50.9 gross punt average. While he did benefit greatly from the best punt coverage unit in the NFL, he still put together long, well-placed punts.
My favorite Andy Lee moment from 2011 had to be Week 17 against the St. Louis Rams. In the fourth quarter, the 49ers lined up at their own 35 on 4th and 3 and Lee booted a 58-yard punt to the Rams 7-yard line. Unfortunately the 49ers and Rams both committed penalties, which offset each other. This led to a second punt and Lee proceeded to boom another punt, this time 64- yards and bouncing it out of bounds at the Rams 1-yard line. That was Andy Lee's dominant 2011 season in a nutshell.
This is actually a big year for Lee because he is entering the last season of a six year contract he signed back in 2007. He was a restricted free agent at the time and signed an offer sheet with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which the 49ers subsequently matched to retain him. The market for punters is rather interesting now thanks to the Oakland Raiders giving Shane Lechler a four year, $16 million contract in 2009. Lee will earn $1.1 million this season and will most certainly be looking for a raise when this deal expires.
Here are some additional stats about the man with the bionic leg. I think you know what rating I'm giving him:
- Set a single-game career-high in both gross average (59.6) and net average (54.2) vs. Seattle (9/11), both single-game franchise records. His 59.6 gross average ranks third in NFL history all-time (min. 4 punts), trailing only Bob Cifers (61.75, 11/24/46) and Ron McKay (61.60, 10/28/45), who were members of the AAFC at the time. His 54.2 net average ranks second in NFL history behind Rohn Starks (59.5, 9/13/92).
- Recorded third highest punting average (55.3) for a single game in his career vs. Dal. (9/18), punting 6 times for 332 yards
- Dropped a season-high four punts inside the 20-yards line on 9 punts at Detroit (10/16) for a total of 430 yards
- Punted the ball five times at Baltimore (11/25) and averaged 57.6 yards per punt. His average marked the NFL's third highest of the season (min. 4 punts) and Lee's second highest of his career.
- Named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after posting six punts for 285 yds. (47.5 avg.), including a net of 49.5 and 4 punts downed inside the 20-yard line vs. Pittsburgh (12/19).
- Punted the ball ten times for 455 yards and landed three punts inside the 20-yard line vs. NYG (1/22) in the NFC Championship Game.
Named AP First-Team All-Pro, PFW/PFWA First-Team All-Pro, PFW/PFWA Golden Toe Award (best kicker or punter), NFC Pro Bowl, Sporting News All-Pro Team