Welcome to the golden age of punting

The Raiders' Shane Lechler (league-leading 44.9-yard net average), left, and the 49ers' Andy Lee are among a large group of punters who are performing at a high level. AP Photos

In the aftermath of his team's hard-fought, 18-14 comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Indianapolis first-year coach Jim Caldwell cited several players whose performances helped the Colts remain undefeated.

Interspersed among Caldwell's postgame kudos for Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, and Reggie Wayne, among others, the Indianapolis coach made sure he also mentioned the contribution of rookie punter Pat McAfee as having been critical to the Colts' victory.

"He was a big factor," allowed Caldwell, who became the first coach in modern NFL history to win his first seven outings. "We needed everything he gave us."

A seventh-round draft choice from West Virginia, McAfee, who also handles the kickoff duties for the Colts, punted seven times for a gross average of 46.3 yards and a 41-yard net average. He three times bottled up the 49ers at or inside of their own 20-yard line, twice pushed San Francisco inside its 11-yard line, and did not have a touchback. San Francisco's average starting point after his seven punts was the 20.6-yard line.

And, arguably, McAfee, who ranks 14th in the league in both gross and net averages counting punters with more than 25 kicks, probably wasn't even the best punter on the Lucas Oil Stadium field Sunday afternoon.

Beyond an aggressive defense, and San Francisco's ability to stymie the potent Indianapolis offense in the red zone, the 49ers led through three quarters in large part because of the efforts of six-year veteran Andy Lee, fourth in the league in gross average (48.0) and third in net average (41.8 yards).

Lee punted eight times for a 50-yard gross average and a net average of 46.0 yards. Each of his first six punts traveled 50 yards or more, and five of them were returned for between just 2 to 7 yards. Four of his kicks pinned the Colts inside their 20-yard line, and Indianapolis' average starting point following a punt was the 22.2-yard line. Only twice did the Colts originate a post-punt possession beyond their 25-yard line, and just once past the 30.

"The guy was unbelievable," said former NFL punter Brian Hansen, a 16-year veteran who played for five franchises and watched the game from the press box. "He really made a difference in the game. Both [punters] did."

And that's been one of the quiet highlights in the first half of the 2009 season. It may not be sexy, and the very act itself connotes offensive failure of a sort, but punters are playing huge roles around the NFL. In fact, the past few seasons may have witnessed a kind of golden age in punting.

Said Lee, one of the league's premier punters the past several seasons, and a guy who has been a legitimate weapon for the San Francisco franchise: "I don't know that there is any more emphasis on it, because the punting game has always been considered a key as far as I'm concerned, but it's getting much more attention. And the numbers that some guys are putting up are pretty monstrous."

Through the first eight weeks of the '09 campaign, the numbers are astonishing.

There are 14 full-time punters (those with more than 25 kicks) currently with gross averages of 45 yards or more and one with a gross of 50 yards or more. In 2008, when the spree of prodigious punting really seemed to take hold, there were 11 punters who averaged 45-plus yards gross, and Donnie Jones of St. Louis averaged 50 yards, only the second player in league history to do so.

The most obvious improvement, though, has been in net punting average, where Shane Lechler established a record in 2008, with a mark of 41.18 yards. Lechler is a two-time league punting champion and a four-time Pro Bowl performer. The career leader in net punting average entering the season, Mike Scifres of San Diego (38.94 yards), is a contemporary. As are Jones and Kansas City's Dustin Colquitt, who entered the year ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in career net punting average.

At the eight-week mark of the season, nine players, led by the powerful Lechler, own net averages of 40 yards or more. In the previous 10 seasons, just six punters managed to average 40.0 yards net or more, and all six of those occurred in 2007-2008.

A 40-yard net used to be the Holy Grail in the league. Although it has hardly become the new standard, the 40-yard threshold isn't as unthinkable as it once was. Based on the current numbers, the 2009 group of punters might be the best and deepest overall collection assembled in league history.

Fans might treat the role of punters rather dismissively, given the perceived irrelevance, but that certainly isn't the case in NFL locker rooms. Certainly on the respect scale, punters have made a significant rise.

"I think when you're facing a third-and-12 and backed up in your own end, a punt isn't the worst thing that can happen to you," Manning said. "More and more coaches are preaching that. And it definitely has something to do with the quality of punters in the league."

Why the sudden surge in punting? One reason is that players like Jones and Lechler, who is listed on the Oakland roster (conservatively) at 225 pounds, are more common in the league. But punters have also improved their flexibility and overall athleticism, too. Like former Colts standout Rohn Stark, a star track decathlete, punters are more than just guys who make a living kicking a football.

But the biggest reason might be the new emphasis on the art, the fact teams are scouting punters as more than merely an afterthought, and investing draft choices instead of simply counting on signing someone as a free agent.

"[Teams] have seen the importance of it," noted Lee, a sixth-round choice in 2004. "For years, people only paid lip service to how important the kicking game was. Now they're starting to believe their own words."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.