Most thought Johnny Townsend’s part in the Raiders’ punter battle should have ended last season. Even with no punter on the team, it wouldn’t have been hard to find a punter off the street who could outperform him. But with a lost season, punter was the least of Jon Gruden’s problems. So, Townsend remained.
At one point this offseason, the Raiders had three punters on the roster – Townsend, Drew Kaser, and undrafted rookie A.J. Cole. That didn’t last long as roster spots are precious and Kaser got the ax. Once that happened, it looked like the Raiders might let the competition go through the 53-man roster cutdown following the preseason. After the first preseason game, that battle ended. Townsend was out and Cole was the last man standing.
“Yeah, I guess in some ways I probably thought this would go through the end of camp,” said a surprised AJ Cole.
“[Special Teams] Coach [Rich] Bisaccia asked me if I had a chance to see Johnny and I didn’t really know what had happened. I said no and then he was just like ‘it’s your time to go, make sure you get your act together and make sure you play the way you’re capable of.’”
“It kind of caught me off guard, but to me it just meant that they believe in what I do, they believe I can be a difference maker in this league. I just got to go out there and I don’t have to try and do anything crazy I just have to be myself and play within my constraints and do what I’m comfortable with and I’m going to help this team win football games.”
Understand, Cole initially came to the Raiders rookie minicamp as a tryout player and he didn’t even expect them to sign him. The four-year NC State punter never put up great distance numbers for the Wolfpack, but the Raiders were impressed by his pooch punting and saw potential in his occasional booming punts. Since then he’s had the opportunity to really hone in on his skills and be more consistent with those big punts.
Those big punts had Gruden comparing Cole’s leg strength to Raiders great Shane Lechler and he even tossed in Marquette King’s name — the big legged, but big mouth punter who Gruden cut even before offseason practices began. The comparison to Lechler in particular, Cole called “unbelievable.”
“Shane Lechler’s one of the greatest that’s ever played this position and to even have your name mentioned in that stratosphere is kind of a surreal experience,” Cole said. “I mean what he did for the punting position and just the consistency and for so many years. Playing 15 plus years in the NFL it’s incredibly hard to do.”
Consistency is the area Cole had to work on the most in training camp. And his strides in that area have been noticeable. The final thing the Raiders needed to see was if he could do it in an actual game. Cole did that in the first preseason game, nailing four punts with no returns and two stopped inside the 20. That was the clincher that ended Townsend’s part in the competition.
“Bisaccia said before that it really only matters what you do when the lights come on,” said Cole. “You can be a practice All Star but if you show up in the game and shank the ball and don’t play like you did in practice it doesn’t really matter. You could hit thousands of punts in your life and if you only hit 60 in a season, that’s the 60 everybody is going to judge you off of. And that’s the 60 that they’re going to rank you by and that’s the 60 they’re going to decide your future based on. So, it really only does matter in those situations so I think that going out there and putting a couple good punts on film in a real game probably played a factor.”
Being a good holder was also important. He has improved in that area, and he and kicker Daniel Carlson will benefit greatly from Cole no longer having to split holding duties in practice.
It’s important that Cole understands this isn’t the end of his competition. First and foremost, he must compete with himself. He must constantly improve in order to prove he has the potential Bisaccia and Gruden see in him. There will be more something like 30 punters hitting the waiver wire soon and Cole will have to show the Raiders enough to keep them from thinking the legs are always bigger on the other guys.
“I don’t think the mentality changes at all,” Cole said. “I think that just because I’m the only punter here doesn’t mean I’m the only punter. There’s plenty of really good players that don’t have contracts right now and I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Cole wasn’t just punting in the game Saturday, he was kicking off. It’s a skill Gruden has lauded because it shows Cole’s versatility. Daniel Carlson isn’t at risk of losing his job as the field goal kicker. Not after hitting 16 of 17 field goal attempts last season. But if Cole can show he can be a better kick off guy, he could be used there. Or at very least he offers some insurance at the position. Cole said he could even be an emergency field goal kicker.
Nothing is a given at this point. It’s Cole’s job to lose. Continuing his progress will ensure he doesn’t lose it.