x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rocca has his foot in the door

Moving to the National Football League after he retired from the Australian Football League, Sav Rocca had a lot of adjusting to do. For one thing, as a punter in the NFL, he had to do a lot of standing. And waiting.

Aside from his punting duties, Sav Rocca, left, also holds the ball on field goals and extra points for Graham Gano, the Washington Redskins' place-kicker.
Aside from his punting duties, Sav Rocca, left, also holds the ball on field goals and extra points for Graham Gano, the Washington Redskins' place-kicker.

ASHBURN, Virginia // In Australia, Sav Rocca was in the middle of the action.

American football fans might not understand his statistics, but he had a load of them: 748 "goals", 1,871 "kicks", 1,318 "marks", 2,360 "disposals", 411 "behinds", 219 "tackles" - all in 257 games over 15 seasons with the Collingwood Magpies and the North Melbourne Kangaroos of the Australian Football League.

Rocca moved on to the National Football League after his retirement from the AFL and, after four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, he is now the punter for the Washington Redskins, and he spends most of the game just standing on the sideline.

"That was probably one of the biggest adjustments that I had to make," Rocca said. "Apart from the terminology, and learning the new rules and sport, the other adjustment was you could have a period of over an hour without kicking in a game. You have to be ready to go out, and you might be ready and you're not required to go out. It's one of those things that I really had to get used to."

There were other adjustments, too, when Rocca became part of the Australian wave of punters migrating to the NFL.

The ball is more pointy and less soft. Helmets and pads are required.

But the pay is much better, enough for Rocca to bring his wife and three sons to the United States for a new life after he retired from the AFL. He became the oldest rookie in NFL history when he signed at the age of 33 with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rocca was middle of the pack with the Eagles, averaging 42.9 yards with a 37.6 net to rank 19th and 15th, respectively, among all NFL punters over his four seasons. He became a free agent at the end of last year and had to go back to Australia during the lockout - because his work visa is not valid unless he has a job in the US.

The Redskins signed Rocca once the lockout was over.

They will gladly take the run-of-the-mill numbers he had with the Eagles.

Why? Because the Redskins are the worst punting team in the league. Last in overall average (40.9) since 2000. Last in net average (34.5) since 2002.

The Redskins have used 14 punters in regular season games since 1999. They have gone through seven punters over the past four years, including three (Hunter Smith, Sam Paulescu and Josh Bidwell) last season.

Rocca's hang time is already getting a thumbs-up from his fellow special teams players.

"He's putting the thing up the air, like, 4.5 [seconds]," Lorenzo Alexander, the linebacker, said.

"Last year we were covering punts that were, like, 3.9. He had a 5.0 one day ... It's going to make it a lot easier to get down there and make a lot of good tackles."

Rocca said one of his biggest challenges is maintaining his technique. The drop must be perfect. He cannot over stride. It is a more exact motion than the one he used in the AFL, where he would kick on the run while dodging defenders.

But Danny Smith, his position coach, said it is that type of experience that helps the Aussie punters do so well in the NFL.

Darren Bennett helped pave the way, playing for San Diego and Minnesota from 1995 to 2005, and now there is Mat McBriar (Dallas Cowboys) and Ben Graham (Arizona Cardinals).

"They've had to catch, run and throw, as opposed to just being in our American colleges and sitting back there punting," Smith said. "They're good with their hands, they're good with their feet." There is one other difference, Rocca points out, from playing in Australia.

"I think the hits that you get in the NFL are a lot bigger," he said, "but I think that's because you've got a helmet and pads on. If you take the helmet and pads off, then you're not going to lead with your head.

"If you made both sides even with what they're wearing, it becomes an even battle."