A casual observer of the Dallas Cowboys’ 44-14 dismantling of the Washington Redskins Monday night probably concluded that the game was won by either Danny White’s passing or Mike Renfro’s receiving or Tony Dorsett’s running or, more likely, the defensive secondary’s gang-style thievery of Joe Theismann’s passes.
However, this was a night when football was really foot ball.
Most folks think of “punt formation” as a time to get a head start on a chore which might take just a bit longer than the commercial break which usually follows. Thus, the most pivotal plays in this game took place while much of the viewing public was on the way to the refrigerator or rest room.
In this regard, I am just like everybody else. “Punt formation” is football’s version of the pitcher coming to bat with two outs and no one on base.
When Dallas first aligned itself to punt Monday night, I didn’t notice who was punting. Instead, I noticed who wasn’t. White, the quarterback, was no longer doing double duty. It did not greatly interest me who was doing the punting until I saw what the punter was doing to the football--and the Redskins.
At one point, the punter had kicked five times for an average of 51.8 yards--and three of those punts left the Redskins backed up inside their own 20. The sixth punt, from the Washington 46, was killed on the 1-yard line.
That was the coup de grace, particularly when an interception was returned for a touchdown moments later.
Washington had advantages in total offense, 369-319, and first downs, 24-19, but spent most of that offense trying to move the ball out of its own end of the field. The Redskins would spend five minutes struggling to gain 50 yards, and the Dallas punter would take all of five seconds to put them right back where they started.
After what was surely a joyous evening in Texas, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry acknowledged how important basics had been to the lopsided win: “The kicking game was the key thing overall . . . The punter kept them backed up all night.”
Coaches are realists. They know breaks, such as interceptions, can go as easily as they come. But they know solid punting can become a most dependable weapon, one which is not quite as susceptible to the whims of fate as so many other areas of this crazy game.
How important is the punter?
On one occasion, when Landry was asked about White’s dual role, an interviewer asked who would play quarterback if White got hurt while punting.
“Wait a minute,” Landry said. “Who’s going to do the punting if White gets hurt playing quarterback?”
For this reason, Landry has been looking for a punter for quite some time. He did not want just any punter, because White was quite proficient. It had to be someone special.
If Monday night’s performance is any indication, Landry may have found his man. How many punters have averaged 48.8 yards per kick under the glare of Monday Night Football in their first National Football League game?
The man who turned Danny White into a quarterback was one Mike Saxon, who enjoyed a distinguished but anonymous career at San Diego State. Of course, most punters have rather anonymous careers, even in the professional ranks.
That was why this was such a special sort of beginning for Saxon. He was so good he had to be noticed.
Not that it has been easy for him.
“You could always see he had athletic skills,” said Gary Zauner, the Aztecs’ special teams coach. “It was a matter of whether he wanted to work to improve. He was inconsistent with techniques, and maybe a little bit lazy.”
Zauner demanded that his kickers run and run and run some more, sometimes distances and sometimes stadium steps. And he insisted that they lift weights.
The regimen seemed perplexing to Saxon.
“Geez, Coach,” he’d say. “All I’ve got to do is kick.”
Saxon, a junior college transfer from Pasadena, was a walk-on when he arrived at San Diego State in the fall of 1982. It was almost typical of a punter’s lot in life that scholarship money would be expended elsewhere.
Though he began as the No. 1 punter, he lost his job as he struggled with techniques. When he got his job back, he would set an Aztec record with an 80-yard punt against BYU and ultimately average 41.8 yards per kick for the year.
With an appreciation for the fact that there is more to kicking than just kicking, Saxon applied himself in 1983 and set another Aztec record with an average of 45.5 yards per kick for the year.
And how is a punter rewarded for such prowess?
He was selected in the 12th--and last--round of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. Punters rarely find themselves deluged with respect. It is almost as if they are football’s afterthoughts.
Saxon was eventually cut by the Lions and later by the Arizona Whatchacallemthisyear of the United States Football League. Arizona may not be pro football’s dead end, but it figured to be somewhere in the same neighborhood.
And so it was on to Dallas, which unbeknownst to Saxon was desperately in search of the right man. White wanted to throw the ball and let someone else kick it.
“Danny kept telling me not to worry,” Saxon said Tuesday, “but up until this last week I really didn’t know if I was going to make the team.”
On the day after his rather smashing debut, Saxon was getting himself settled into an apartment in Irving, Texas. Being a bit uncertain of his status, he had been understandably reluctant to send out his laundry and fill the refrigerator.
Indeed, when he picked up the telephone, he seemed a bit startled. He had just plugged it into the wall, and did not know it was yet connected.
“How’d you find me?” he gasped. “I didn’t even know I had a phone number.”
Mike Saxon should have a personalized number, something like 48.8 44-14. Not that he will need it to remember the Monday night he made Danny White a quarterback.