Before the forward pass and other changes gave us modern football, the game's rules and football's collective thinking restrained the game's offenses. The combination produced a low-scoring field position game that emphasized punting. Superior punters were prized, and the ability to boot the ball contributed to more than one fullback and halfback gaining All-America honors.
Punting for distance had substantial value in the field position game, but accuracy was also important, mainly due to the era's rules. As we'll see, periodic rule changes required coaches and punters to develop new strategies, requiring new words to communicate and implement those strategies.
John Heisman wrote that punts used to pin opponents into the corner of the field date to the late 1880s or early 1890s and originated with George Brooke, who played at Swarthmore and Penn. Like today, teams valued punts that rolled out of bounds close to the opponent's goal line, but punts that died close to the sideline had more value because football did not yet have hash marks. Punts that went out of bounds could be walked in fifteen yards, while punts stopping close to the sideline stayed there, and the opponent started their possession from the spot.
One example of George Brooke using his accurate toe occurred during the 1895 Harvard-Penn game when Penn was near midfield:
From the 50-yard line, Brooke drove the ball on a long, low punt clear to the corner of the field. Harvard was down right on her own goal line. … [After Harvard opted to punt on first down,] Brewer went clear back to the fence to punt. He was terribly slow. The big Pennsylvania rushers came through on him and he kicked the ball into them. Boyle fell on it for a touchdown. Brooke kicked the goal.
'The Gains, Yard by Yard,’ Boston Globe, November 12, 1895.
Since teams often started plays from near the sideline after punts or sweeps, every team's playbook and practices included unbalanced formation plays for use from those spots. Still, imagine starting a possession from your one-yard line and one yard from the sideline. Those were indeed n the coffin corner, a term that first appeared in 1919. While it is not clear how the name came into football, one suggestion is that it comes from the notches or insets in walls that provide clearance for longer items, including coffins carried up and down stairwells.
The following chart from 1913 reflects the strategic role punting placed at the time. Many coaches created similar charts to instruct their quarterbacks in generalship or strategic play calling. (Coaches could not legally communicate with the players on the field until the 1950s and 1960s.) The arrows pointing inward from the sidelines indicate that teams punting from the sideline should aim for the middle of the field. The arrows starting at midfield and angling outward to the sideline indicate the coach prefers to put the opponent at the ten-yard line rather than go for the coffin corner and risk a touchback.
Consistent with Reed's strategy for punting toward the middle of the field when positioned near the sideline, the image atop the page and below shows Syracuse executing that approach against Illinois.
Things changed with the introduction of hash marks in 1933. Coffin corner punts that went out of bounds or stopped close to the sidelines moved to the hash marks ten yards infield. No longer able to pin opponents in the corner, teams could still pin opponents inside the ten and between the hash marks. Punters often employed the tactic until the rule-makers recognized that teams pinned deep often punted on first or second down, making for boring football.
The situation led to a 1941 rule restricting players on the punting team from touching the ball inside the ten-yard line. Specifically, touching the ball resulted in a touchback, so the punt coverage guys did not bother to stop balls from rolling into the end zone since doing so resulted in a touchback anyway.
The touchback rule had a more significant impact on teams with less skilled punters, and Red Sanders must have considered his Vanderbilt team one of them. As the Commodores' coach in 1942, Sanders instructed his punters not to aim for the coffin corner but to focus on having the ball roll dead anywhere inside the ten-yard line. Since these punts came when Vanderbilt was already in the opponent's territory, they were short punts, earning the name squib kicks. (Squibs are small firecrackers or short pieces of satirical writing.)
The same year Sanders introduced squib kicks, Northeastern coach Emanuel "Foxy" Flumere, had his own bright idea. Flumere blamed the 1941 team's missed extra points on the holder's inability to keep the ball steady, so he experimented during the summer of '42 and came up with the belly kick. The technique required the holder to place the snapped ball flat on the ground with the length of the ball running parallel to the yard lines, so the ball's belly faced the kicker. Instructed to punch kick rather than follow-through, his kickers proved reasonably accurate during the pre-season. Unfortunately, due to injuries and players entering the services, Northeastern went 0-5-1, scoring two touchdowns all season and missing both extra points. Northeastern dropped football in 1943 for the duration of the war, so the belly kick never got off the ground, but the punch kick approach would see a rebirth.
The rule restricting teams from touching inside the ten dropped from the books in 1962, leading to changes in punting strategy once again. Down Arkansas way, Frank Broyles applied Red Sanders' tactic of short punts and downing the ball inside the ten, but by then, the meaning of "squib kick" had changed to refer to a kickoff tactic. Broyles called his short punt a pooch kick, likely a bastardization of punch kick.
Just as squib kick originated as a term to describe a short punt and evolved to describe a shortened kickoff, the same occurred to the pooch kick by the mid-1970s. Today, a squib kick generally refers to a hard, low kickoff that is difficult to handle while disrupting the return team's timing.
On the other hand, a pooch kick is a high, short kick or punt. The kicking team wants someone other than the primary return man to field the pooch kickoff while allowing the coverage personnel to get downfield. Meanwhile, they use a pooch punt to pin the return team deep in their territory, so it retains the original meaning of the squib kick and pooch kick.
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