Tom Coughlin isn’t ready to pull the trigger on rookie punter Matt Dodge – yet.
But a couple of more duffed punts or line drive shots that result in 20-something yard returns, and Dodge might just find himself out of a job.
“Patience is not a good word right now, so Matt…we need to see the consistency,” Coughlin said Monday as he reviewed the horrible special teams performance in the Giants’ 31-18 win over the Panthers. “You know, there was a 28-yard return in there. I mean, the line drive punt that doesn’t go very far, it looks like we’re all clumped in there together where no one really even has a chance to disperse the coverage and that ball got outside it like nobody’s business. So that’s what you try to make the young punter and everyone else understand, that it’s a team operation here. You’ve got to give our people a chance to get out there and cover.”
It’s something Dodge has struggled with the entire summer, and something the punt coverage team can’t afford. While it didn’t kill the Giants last week, they certainly can’t go on like that. It’s one thing to give Matt Moore field position. It’s quite another to start Peyton Manning off at or near midfield.
“Unfortunately, special teams-wise, we did not play Giants football (Sunday),” said Bryan Kehl, one of the special teams’ most consistent coverage players. “As a special-teamer, I take that as a challenge. Just come out next week and improve.”
Most of that improvement has to come from Dodge, who seems to change character from a confident boomer when in the middle of the field to a timid, hit-or-miss guy near his own end zone.
Dodge even hinted that it being the New Meadowlands Stadium opener on the weekend of 9/11, the game itself may have gotten into his head.
“The game was exactly the same. That’s what I have to remind myself,” he said. “But you definitely take in the atmosphere, what we’re remembering, playing in front of a great fan base, just remembering what happened on 9/11. My brother went over there and fought in Iraq.
“(But) at the end of the day I just need to kick the football. Don’t think about anything else.”
Kehl tried hard not to criticize his teammate, but couldn’t help but run down the realities of a punt that fails to travel vertically or horizontally.
“It does play a big part of it,” Kehl said. “When the guy is catching it and the coverage is 20 yards away, any returner worth his salt is going to get some yards off that.
“That’s part of it. And then, we’ve got to get down there and tackle. We can’t let guys run through tackles. Like I say, it’s the quintessential team sport, and it doesn’t work unless everybody’s doing their part. If it’s low hang time, it makes it hard.”
Kehl and the rest of the coverage unit can be forgiven if they seem impatient. For years, they benefitted from Jeff Feagles’ directional punting. Half the time, it was a matter of the coverage guys simply going down and watching the return take the ball a foot from the sideline, only to step out of bounds -- if the punt even stayed inbounds. With Dodge, the potential for a long kick down the middle is always there. But the directional aspect is missing in spite of Feagles’ continued tutelage.
Even at that, Kehl said he could easily live with a long kick down the middle, providing Dodge can put some air under it.
“It’s totally different,” Kehl said. “Matt is a great punter. When he gets in a rhythm and gets going, he’s going to be booming them, just like he does in practice. When he starts booming them, we’ll get down there and you’ll see a lot better results than you did (Sunday).
“To be 100 percent honest, we’re kind of glad we’ve got Matt. We’ve got a chance to get more tackles. We used to complain with Feagles that we didn’t get any tackles on a punt. As a defensive player, you want to get tackles, so every chance you can get, you’re kind of excited for it.”
All kidding aside, however, getting a tackle 28 yards from the point of the catch does not equal a success for any coverage unit. And Coughlin can only wait so long for Dodge to come around.
If field position costs them Sunday’s game, the time might be right to audition some punters.
But that time hasn’t come yet.