The competition among players and the auditioning for roster spots is a ceaseless exercise for an NFL franchise, from the quarterbacks vying for a spot behind the established starter, to the running backs who are scrapping for snaps, to the six defensive backs who are angling for one or two open spots behind the rock-solid locks.
But the New Orleans Saints haven’t invited two punters to training camp – nor have they auditioned one on an off day during the season, or wasted a night’s sleep thinking about another one – since 2009.
“Hopefully, it’s a good thing and they don’t want to burn a roster spot, and they don’t want to go look at somebody else if they know I’m going to be the guy,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem being competitive on my own and testing myself every day.
“Coach (Sean) Payton always talks about, you have to get comfortable with competing every day and putting yourself out there. I’m harder on myself than just about anybody and my standards are very high. Hopefully I can continue to have that approach every day when I come to work and just try to keep stretching the limits of what I do as best I can.”
Absolutely, Morstead has stretched the limits of what any Saints fan may have believed possible for a punter.
He’s the best in franchise history, owner of the highest gross (47.1 yards) and net (40.7) punting averages in team history, the latter by almost five yards.
But it’s the lagniappe – 202 kickoffs for touchbacks, a seemingly innate sense of pinning opponents inside the 20 (97 of his 296 punts have done that) and the ability to flip field position with booming punts and sun-dial hang time – that has kept Morstead in a rare class of NFL punters since he became a Saint.
It’s what the franchise saw in him when it did something rare, and spent a draft pick on the punter from SMU.
“It’s significant,” Payton said. “He’s really been a big part of changing field position. He’s someone who’s very athletic. He’s extremely dedicated.
“You go all the way back – when you select a punter in the fifth round, (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) and I argue as to who’s going to come down (to the press conference room to address the media) and tell you guys we took a punter. But there’s a value when you get the right one. And certainly, we got the right one.
“There are times where you’re playing a game and it might be a game that’s low scoring, and 15 extra yards is significant. He changes the field position. He’s very consistent and I would say he’s always looking for ways to improve. And then you throw on top the ability for him to kick off with real good leg strength. He’s certainly one of the better punters, if not the best punter, in the league.”
The evidence supports Payton’s belief.
In 2012, Morstead posted the fifth-best single-season net punting average (43.19 yards) in NFL history. In 2011, he set an NFL record with 68 kickoffs for touchbacks. And to top off his rookie season in 2009, he executed the onside kick at the start of the second half in Super Bowl XLIV against Indianapolis that contributed to the Saints’ 31-17 victory.
And he only seems to be getting better as he enters his sixth season.
“I would like to think I’m in my best shape that I’ve been in,” Morstead said. “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I feel great. Your body just continually changes.
“My rookie year, we had (kicker) John Carney and I just tried to soak in everything I could from him. And I remember him telling me he’d been playing 20-some years, and how you’ll never have it figured out but your body is constantly changing as you get older. And it doesn’t mean you can’t be great, it just means you change the way you do things – the way you eat, the way you rest, all those different things that it takes to be great.
“And so far, that’s held true. There are certain things I do in training that I didn’t do before, and certain things that I used to do that I don’t do anymore. It’s just a constant battle to try and be at your very best, every single day.”
Morstead said that being a Saint has meant he has sacrificed for the betterment of the team, like his teammates have.
“There are so many things that people think about and what most people talk about are physical attributes, the training and being recovered and all that,” he said. “The longer I do this – I know it’s always preached – but being a team guy, putting your ego at the door (is critical).
“Sometimes they ask you to do things that you know are not going to be good for you individually, statistically. And you just have to let it go. Being a team player is sometimes great, and sometimes very hard to do.
“I guess I’m drinking the Kool-Aid from Coach Payton. Because I’ve seen the way that they select guys and I’ve seen the way they put this team together and I really do believe that Mickey (Loomis) and Sean and all the staff, they really put their money where their mouth is. They back up what they say.
“So when your most important player, your best player,
It’s part of the give and take of being a standout professional, and it’s a lesson learned by a player who perhaps experienced one of the most extreme highs and lows of his life on the day he was drafted.
“It was amazing (to be drafted),” Morstead said. “I think back, I had just a couple of close friends and my family with me. It really was a dream come true; it only happens once.
“It started off with me believing I could do it well before anybody else did. I remember my mom, I’d tell her I wanted to play in the NFL and she’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. Keep studying hard. Get your degree.’
“But I just remember, my special teams coach at SMU, Frank Gansz Sr., had just gone into a coma and he died the day after I got drafted (April 27, 2009, from complications following knee replacement surgery). And I remember elation for, like, 30 seconds and then sobbing and I drove to the hospital. I left my draft party and went and saw him. It was just an emotional weekend, one I’ll never forget.”
Since then, he has constructed an NFL career that he shouldn’t be able to forget. One that Saints fans likely won’t be able to forget.
One that has been so outstanding, the franchise hasn’t felt a need even to look anywhere else since the year he was drafted.