METAIRIE, La. — The last time Thomas Morstead had his hair cut, the Saints were months removed from winning the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl.
Nearly two-and-a-half years later, New Orleans’ fourth-year punter has hair long enough to put in a pony-tail. The idea, he said, was to help out Wigs for Kids, an organization whose mission is to help children suffering from hair loss.
And, according to Morstead, that’s why he’s recognized around New Orleans.
It’s his clutch punting, his booming kickoffs and his love of living in New Orleans, where he has taken a keen interest in living with the locals. So keen, in fact, that he just purchased an Uptown home.
But mostly it’s his right leg, which played a crucial part in the Saints’ holding off Atlanta this past Sunday.
“That punt at the end of our game was huge,” Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “In that situation when we are trying to defend the goal line with under a minute (left in the game), he just boomed it. I told him afterwards we greatly appreciated it.”
Truth is, even if those outside New Orleans don’t recognize Morstead’s brilliance (he’s only No. 3 in NFC Pro Bowl voting), those inside the Airline Drive facility and those inside the Federal levee protection system sure do.
There’s a reason he attained the nickname “The Leg.”
This season, Morstead is destroying his career averages for both gross and net punting and is on the verge of setting NFL records in both.
Through nine games, he’s averaging 51 yards per punt, which currently is the third-best average ever. Should he average just one yard more per punt in the final seven games, he would best Sammy Baugh’s 72-year-old record.
His 45.4 yard net average is 5.2 yards better than his career average and is 1.1 yard more than Andy Lee’s record, which was set in 2011. Morstead’s 2011 average of 43.11 is third-best in the NFL all-time.
Thing is, it’s not like he just gets out there and kicks the ball and that’s it. Morstead puts as much time in the weight room as any player, his teammates said. Long-snapper Justin Drescher said the punter has his own personal set of gymnastics rings, which he uses to work on his core strength.
“He’s a hard-working dude,” Drescher said. “He can do some funky things in the weight room. He prides himself in being strong and being able to do some upside down pushups and some ring stuff.”
Added special teams coach Greg McMahon, “He’s played a high level for us and every year he has gotten better. Certainly he’s on track to improve this year than he was last year. I think he’s a very good pro. He takes a lot of pride in his craft and he knows he has a big role for our team.”
Indeed, Morstead has been called a weapon on more than one occasion for the Saints. Of his 41 punts this season, 12 have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
And as the team’s kickoff specialist, he plays a big part in keeping teams from attaining good field position to begin possessions. Of his 49 kickoffs this season, 45 have gone into the end zone and 27 have not come out. Because of that, the Saints rank second in the NFL in opposing teams’ average starting field position just inside the 20.
But it’s punting that sets Morstead aside and it’s the main reason the Saints gave him a new contract during training camp, signing him to a seven-year, $23 million contract.
“I was a little uptight during training camp because I felt a lot more pressure to do well,” Morstead said. “But Mickey (Loomis) just told me, ‘We don’t need you to be better than you were or trying to be something extra. We extended you because we love what you are.’ So he said, ‘You don’t need to be anything but you.’
“When he told me that, it made me relax and just remember that we were doing pretty good before I started trying to do all these crazy things.”
He has come a long way since his rookie season, when he put toe-to-leather in one of the most famous, gutsy calls in Super Bowl history, Ambush, the post-halftime onside kick that gave the Saints the ball back to begin the third quarter.
Now, instead of focusing on hang time for punts, he’s worried more about placement, which has helped him bump his net average from 42.3 yards to this season’s 45.4 yard average.
Nothing, though, is as thrilling to him as how he helped seal the win against Atlanta. His heels backed up against the touchline, he needed to have one of his most solid punts of the game with the Saints leading by only four points.
Instead of shanking a punt and giving the Falcons good field position with 37 seconds to play, he boomed a 55-yard punt, pinning Atlanta at its own 41. Add a holding penalty on top and the Falcons had to try to go 69 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“It’s an awesome feeling to go out there and get that opportunity,” Morstead said. “Guys that play normal defense or offense positions, maybe they get three or four times a game where they get the opportunity to make a game-changing play. Maybe we get three or four times a year, if that, as punter and it’s not points. It has got to be a very specific situation for that to make a huge difference.
“I was very confident and looking forward to it.”
So were Saints fans and teammates.
“Yeah, he’s ‘The Leg,’” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’s the secret weapon. That’s a guy who can just flip the field for you.”