Thomas Morstead photos from 2014 New Orleans Saints Training Camp presented by Verizon (New Orleans Saints photos)
Thomas Morstead is a perfectionist, a man who constantly is searching for better ways to refine his art and to squeeze more production into his job.
And no punter in New Orleans Saints history – and few in NFL history – has managed to squeeze out more production than the former fifth-round draft pick (in 2009) from Southern Methodist.
His career gross average is 47 yards, his net is 41 and he has 116 punts downed inside the 20 in six previous seasons. Last year he finished first in the NFC and second in the NFL in net punting average (42.9). He's third on the NFL's all-time gross punting average list (46.96), is the league's all-time career net punting average leader (41) and has three of the top eight best single-season net punting averages in league history.
And yet Morstead is a realist, and his reality is this: He likely never will reach the goals he sets, because his bar always is inching higher.
"There's always more room for improvement, but it's constantly having an open mind as to, you've got to have a plan for how you're going to get those improvements," he said. "They don't just happen.
"You've got to (aspire to reach new heights) constantly, whether it's doing something a new way or raising the standard of what's acceptable, even if you know that more often than not you won't reach that bar. And that's hard to do – it's hard to set a standard that you know that, more than likely, you won't reach."
And yet, not completely reaching the goal still has put him in good enough position to be among the league's elite, and to have earned him a place in Saints history.
Not, not totally via his gross and net punting averages. Rather, Morstead always will be known as the author of one of the two most memorable kicks in franchise history.
The first (or second, depending on your preference) was Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal, a then-NFL record, against the Lions on Nov. 8, 1970.
The second was "Ambush" – Morstead's onside kick at the start of the second half against Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints recovered, scored a touchdown and erased a halftime deficit in their 31-17 victory.
"It's funny," he said. "I always joke to people that I'm going to be remembered for the shortest kick in my career."
It was a daunting task to be asked of a rookie, as Morstead was at the time.
"Kind of a panicked feeling, at first," he said. "A lot of negative thoughts on, like, if things don't go right. And then at some point, you start thinking about how it worked well in practice and every time Coach called to do it in practice, it worked out. All of a sudden, positive thoughts start coming and it timed up well."
But, again, it's not as if any of it has been happenstance or "being in the right place at the right time" for Morstead. The work and results speak for themselves.
"He's one of my best friends on the team," said long snapper Justin Drescher, who has snapped to Morstead in 75 of Morstead's career 104 games. "He's a relentless worker, a detail-oriented guy.
"He's a guy that takes his craft very seriously, a guy that I enjoy going to work with every day because he always has a good attitude. We know how to get under each other's skin, and we know what makes each other run. During the game there might be some heated exchanges between us, but we know it's all for a good cause and that's to make him better.
"We always, after every snap, come talk. 'What happened there? What do we think? What do want to do on the next punt?' He's one of the top punters in the NFL, he's shown that for seven years now."
Drescher said the two have developed a comfort and chemistry that only can be developed through time and repetition.
"He knows where the ball's going to be, he knows what type of snap," Drescher said. "He knows what I'm thinking and I know what he's thinking and what he wants to do on a certain punt.
"He's a very intelligent man. He's always trying to take the next step and he's like, 'Hey, what if we try this? What if we do this?' He's always thinking what small, minute part can help us be even better? We get together on Tuesdays and watch what we're facing in the punt return unit and what they bring to the table, and we want to attack them in a certain way that, hopefully, we can net big yards and flip the field for our team."
It's a ton of preparation and execution, and it exacts a toll.
Of course, it's a payment that most will not readily assume must be paid by those who consider Morstead's position to be the "country-club" job of the NFL. Even though he kicks off and punts, the belief sometimes is that the toll is a small one for Morstead in order to conjure the excellence that he has in his six seasons.
It's an erroneous belief.
"To be honest, I took a little more time off in the offseason," he said. "I got away from kicking and punting until about May – I'm lifting and training year round, almost. But when you do something one-sided – I'm not kicking with my l-ft leg – your body starts to kind of adapt to that movement.
"So you get a difference in your hips, you get a difference in the way your body is structured from kicking all the time. So the longer I can get away from it and try and get back to somewhat a symmetrical body, that is helpful for the long haul of the season. Because I know as soon as I start kicking a lot, I'll start to kind of wind back to that way. So I just do a lot of cross training, I get away from kicking and punting for a while.
"For me, it used to be, 'How strong can I be? How explosive can I be?' And that's still an emphasis, but more of an emphasis is, 'How balanced can I feel?' And I feel good. Can I get everything lined up the right way and feel functionally normal? And the more I've focused on that, I feel like the last four seasons have been really consistent, and that's what I'm looking for."
The last four seasons, in fact, have been his best. He hasn't had a gross average of less than 46.4 or a net of less than 42.3. In the four years, he has finished second in the league in net punting three times, and fourth once.
"I think Coach (Sean Payton) – or anybody, for that matter – wants to have a specialist that he's not concerned about their performance week to week, and isn't worried about what he's going to get," Morstead said. "He wants to know he's getting the same person every day.
"I really saw that from (former Saints kickers) John Carney and John Kasay early in my career. You don't necessarily get the best result every day, but you know you're getting that person's best every day. It's just trying to find a way to just be the measure of consistency. I really feel that's what Coach wants.
"I always tell people, 'I'm not looking to have an A-plus game every day.' But if I can string a whole bunch of B-pluses the whole season, we're going to do pretty good. It's not that you have to have the all-world game or the all-world stats, you've just got to be able to effectively do your job whatever the situations are in the game. I think if everybody is doing that and has that mentality, we'll be able to get a lot of wins."