RENTON – A year ago at this time Michael Dickson could hardly turn around in the Seahawks’ locker room without a reporter wanting to talk to him.
He was concluding the best season by a punter in Seattle history, becoming the first Seahawks punter in more than 20 years to be named to the Pro Bowl. The media rushed to tell the story of how the Sydney, Australia, native gave up his dream of playing Australian Rules Football to move to the United States and emerge barely three years later as one of the NFL’s best at his position.
This week, when Pro Bowl picks were announced, Dickson’s name was nowhere to be found, and his corner of the locker room has been rarely visited.
But here’s the thing: Since overcoming a rough patch in the first half of the season, Dickson has been maybe even better than he was as a rookie.
“I think Mike has really found his groove,” coach Pete Carroll said this week. “I think early on, for whatever reason, he wasn’t quite as sharp with his consistency. I don’t know, at least six or eight weeks of it, maybe it was longer than that, he really hit it. He’s doing great.”
Indeed, Dickson is on the verge of a team record that may not get noticed by fans but is pretty darn valuable inside the locker room — most punts in a season downed inside the 20-yard line.
Dickson has downed 32 punts inside the 20 and needs three to surpass the record shared by Jon Ryan and Jeff Feagles.
He’s had 17 punts downed inside the 20 in the past five games, and 14 of his past 19 overall. And his 32 punts downed inside the 20 this season ranks third in the NFL, as is his percentage of downing punts — 50, half of his 64 punts overall.
And during that stretch Seattle’s punt-cover team has been as effective as any in the league.
Seattle has allowed a total of minus-two punt-return yards the past five games, and in the past 11 games has allowed just 3.7 per return, which would rank third in the NFL for the entire season.
There’s the rub.
Both Dickson and the Seattle punt team had some rough moments early, which have brought down all of their season numbers enough that anyone taking just a cursory glance might think he’s having a sophomore slump.
Seattle allowed 99 net return yards in the first three games, including a 53-yard return for a touchdown to the Saints that jump-started New Orleans’ 33-27 win in Week 3.
Dickson freely acknowledges that his punting early in the season was not what it needed to be.
One reason, he says, was that he’d spent the offseason working on a few things he wanted to improve on — mostly in trying to increase hang time — and initially may have tried too hard to make that work pay off.
“I wanted everything to be perfect, so I was just pushing too hard, he said. “Not at practice or anything like that, but just like the mentality of kind of expecting the perfect punt every single time. And then that led to a couple of mis-hits.’’
What also played a role, special-teams coach Brian Schneider says, was some youth on the punt team.
Part of the excitement over the 2019 draft class was the impact it could have on special teams, and five rookies have emerged as core members of those units and rank among the top seven in special-teams snaps played — Marquise Blair, Cody Barton, Ben Burr-Kirven, Travis Homer and Ugo Amadi.
Those players stepped into roles that last year were filled by veterans such as Neiko Thorpe, Justin Coleman and Barkevious Mingo.
“(Dickson has) settled down, and really everyone has settled down,’’ said Schneider, who cites the work of Blair and Amadi as gunners as key to the improvement.
Dickson says breaking in a largely new punt team played a role in his early struggles.
“I was probably thinking about everything else too much,” he said. “I was probably thinking about that, ‘There is a lot of inexperience, and I need to do this, this and this just in case,’ and blah, blah blah, when I should have just been focusing on myself.”
Dickson says he needed to take a step back and relax.
“It was all mental,” he said.
And by any measure, Dickson is punting as well as he did last season.
He averaged 55.3 yards per kick against Tampa Bay to begin his turnaround in a game he had room to just blast away — none of the three was a touchback.
When he’s had to show touch he’s done that, too.
He averaged 39 yards on seven kicks against the Eagles but downed five inside the 20, one off the team record.
And on a team that has 10 one-possession wins, every yard has mattered. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Seahawks have had an average drive start this year of 29.86, fourth-best in the NFL (turnovers have played a big role in that, but so has punts that have flipped the field).
Dickson says his per-game hang time stats the second half of the year have typically been better than last season.
“There are things I’m doing a lot better than last year even if they aren’t noticed,” he said. “I’ve been hitting my best hang time as I’ve ever hit in my life this year.”
And now that he has come through his slump, Dickson, 23, sees a silver lining.
“I never really had hit a rough patch like that,” he said. “My first year (in college at Texas) I was a little shaky, but I never really went from super consistent to hitting a rut. So I kind of figured out how to handle having a bad punt or having a rough game. I learned how to deal with that this year.”