Leg Up On A Job -- With Rodriguez A Holdout, New Punter Getting His Kicks
KIRKLAND - The worst sound a football coach can hear, when his team is punting, is thump-thump, the first thump off the kicker's foot and the second off an opponent's chest.
That has happened to the Seattle Seahawks only 10 times in their 14-year history, and just once in the past nine seasons. In seven seasons with the Seahawks, Coach Chuck Knox has heard that agonizing thump-thump only once.
But he has not heard the crowd's ``ooh-ah'' very often, either. That's when the home team's punter boots one of those high, long kicks that appears headed for orbit.
The Seahawks hope Rick Donnelly can put some ooh-ahs into their kicking game, as he did during four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
Donnelly was acquired as a Plan B free agent last winter after the Falcons didn't protect him because of uncertainty over his recovery from back surgery.
Donnelly says his back is fine now and expects to pick up where he left off in 1988, with a 42.6-yard career average.
``I feel pretty good,'' Donnelly said. ``I'm close to being where I want to be.''
Unless Donnelly has a relapse, he is almost certain to succeed Ruben Rodriguez and become the seventh punter in Seahawk history. Rodriguez is a holdout and Donnelly's competition in training camp is Paul McJulien, a first-year player who had a tryout with San Diego in 1988.
Donnelly may not make General Manager Tom Flores forget Ray Guy, but he has the credentials to make Seahawk fans forget Rick Engles, Herman Weaver, Jeff West, Dave Finzer, Vince Gamache and Rodriguez, the succession of Seattle punters.
As a former coach of the Raiders, Flores had the pleasure of having Guy as his punter.
``Ray Guy was a great weapon,'' Flores said. ``He was the best punter I've ever been around. He was so powerful that he altered our game plan. We always knew we'd win the battle of field position.''
The Seahawks never have had that luxury, although Rodriguez had a good year in 1988, before dropping off badly last season.
``It was frustrating for us and I'm sure it was to Ruben, too,'' Flores said. ``He was not happy and the coaches were not happy. That doesn't mean he can't come back.''
It wasn't that Rodriguez slumped significantly in average (40.0 yards vs. 40.8 the year before), but that he became so inconsistent. He holds the Seahawk record for longest punt (68 yards) and the shortest (minus 2).
Donnelly, 28, a 190-pounder, led the NFL in 1987 with a 44-yard average. He averaged 43.6 and 43.9, respectively, in his first two years.
``He became a premier kicker,'' Flores said. ``Then he had the bad back. If he overcomes that, he has a good chance to be our kicker.''
Donnelly underwent surgery to fuse two vertebrae last September and spent the season on injured reserve.
``At first, the doctors told me I wouldn't be kicking for a year,'' he said. ``But I've been kicking since last Dec. 20. It's taken awhile, but I'm really pleased.''
As a free agent, Donnelly had offers from about seven teams. He became a Seahawk, he said, after comparing special teams and cities. A two-year contract for $600,000, considerably more than the $105,000 Rodriguez received last year, also was a consideration.
``Right now, I'm looking for consistency,'' Donnelly said. ``I think everything is coming together. Here, they stress consistency, hang time and get-off more than any other place.''
Seattle historically has had problems finding a consistent punter. When the franchise originated in 1976, one of Jack Patera's goals was to sew up the punting game. Engles was drafted in the third round but lasted only one year.
Weaver was obtained from Detroit the next year after the Lions determined that eight thump-thumps were enough. Weaver kicked like Ray Guy in practice and sometimes like Tim Conway in games.
West, who held the Seahawk job from 1981 through 1984, was consistent but lacked distance. Finzer and Gamache were next, until the Seahawks elected to spend a fifth-round draft choice on Rodriguez in 1987.
Rusty Tillman, coach of the special teams, scouted Rodriguez extensively and recommended him highly. Rodriguez appeared for a time to be just what the team needed.
``You never know about kickers,'' Flores said. ``Very few start and end with the same team.''
Guy was a notable exception.
``He could just turn a game around,'' Flores said. ``I remember our championship game with San Diego in 1980. We're on our 25 and he's aiming inside their 20. He put it out on about their 10.''
With Guy, Flores never had to worry about hearing a thump-thump. Guy compiled the second-longest streak in NFL history, 619 punts, without having one blocked.
``My last year with the Raiders, Guy was gone and we were out there every game holding our breath,'' Flores said.
If Donnelly has no ill effects from his back surgery, neither Flores nor Knox should find it necessary to hold their breath this year. They may even hear a few oohs and ahs.
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