Steve Weatherford knows exactly why he replaced Matt Dodge as the Giants' punter this season. Weatherford is here to not kick the ball to Eagles punt returner DeSean Jackson.
Coach Tom Coughlin tried to overlook all of the foibles Dodge committed last season as a rookie, including several dropped snaps, but Jackson's 65-yard return for a touchdown on the last play of the Eagles' 38-31 victory near the end of last season at MetLife Stadium was the straw that broke Dodge's chance of coming back. Coughlin told Dodge to kick it out of bounds, and instead, he sent a low liner down the middle of the field, giving Jackson the opportunity to become the first player in NFL history to score on a punt return on the final play.
Through two games this season, Jackson has averaged just two yards on three punt returns, but Weatherford knows better than to take any chances Sunday in Philadelphia. "We're going to do our best to put the ball on the sidelines or out of bounds and limit the room he has to work with," Weatherofrd said after Friday's practice. "Ideally, I'd like to have the ball out of bounds. Obviously, that's what Coughlin is looking for. Getting the ball outside the numbers on the sidelines is important if you're not able to get it out of bounds."
Jackson's punt return was the icing on a 28-point explosion in the final 7:28 of their comeback from a 31-10 deficit. Weatherford said every punter experience something similar, if not quite as dramatic, if they last long enough. So, he could commiserate with Dodge.
"A lot of things went wrong prior to that [punt], and Matt unfairly got the brunt of it," Weatherford said. "At the same time, that's our job and that's what we're supposed to do. But it's not like a Madden video game where you point the arrow and push X. There is some skill involved in it. But I'm looking forward to the challenge, and we play the guy [Jackson] twice a year, so, I better get used to it."
Weatherford was sensitive enough not to remind Dodge of the play during training camp when they were competing for the Giants' job, but he said Dodge brought it up on his own and they talked about what happened. "Matt wasn't a directional punter," Weatherford said. "To say it was unfair to expect him to do that, no, because he's a professional punter. But Matt's strength was power and hang time. It wasn't placement.
"It was a very tough situation for him to be in. You think, 'All he has to do is punt it out of bounds.' But he had to punt it out of bounds at least 35 or 40 yards because, if he didn't, they would be in field goal range. There were a lot of things going on, a lot of things going through his mind prior to the kick."
Directional punting is the skill that has kept Weatherford in the NFL for six seasons and, he hopes, at least as many more in the future. So, in a sense, he was made for the job of kicking away from Jackson.
At the same time, it doesn't always happen that way. Just last Sunday night, Atlanta was protecting a lead against the Eagles late in the fourth quarter when the Falcons' punter, facing a heavy rush from both sides of the punt formation, drilled one down the middle to Jackson, who was tripped up by a diving tackler a split-second after fielding the punt.
"Yeah, they can put pressure on the side they think you're going to try to punt the ball to, but if you execute the skill like you're supposed to, they can't really control what you do," Weatherford said. "They can make it more difficult, but they can never control it. I feel great about my wings. They block well, so, I'm not concerned with that [an outside rush] at all."
If worst comes to worst, at least Weatherford is a well-conditioned athlete who is capable of making a tackle. He has three this season, but the prospect of trying to bring down Jackson in the open field is not something he wants to face any more than Coughlin does.