ATLANTA – When Bill Belichick uses the word weapon to describe a member of the Rams, several players come to mind.
Running back Todd Gurley led the NFL in touchdowns and finished second in yards from scrimmage per game. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks averaged 14.3 yards per catch after playing for the Patriots in 2017. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for the fourth-most yards in the NFL and his 32 touchdown passes tied for sixth. Aaron Donald is a certified game-wrecker. He led the NFL with 20 1/2 sacks and is expected to be the runaway winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Belichick may very well use the word when talking about those players, but he also has used it to describe Johnny Hekker – the punter – for several years now.
“This guy is a weapon,” the Patriots coach said in 2016. “I mean, he’s not a good player. He’s a weapon.”
That was two seasons ago when Belichick and the Patriots were preparing to face the Rams in the regular season. Now they will meet on the NFL’s biggest stage and Belichick, who has an extensive background in and affinity for special teams, is paying respect to Hekker once again.
Hekker is a magician with his right foot and has been named All-Pro five times in a seven-year career and has been selected to four Pro Bowls. He set an NFL record by landing 50 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2016, when the Rams offense was a wreck and the punting unit was constantly in use. In 2013, he set the NFL record for highest single-season net average at 44.3.
He also possesses a high-powered right arm that makes him a fake punt machine, the greatest trick-play artist in the history of the kicking game. Pair him with an evil genius on special teams in coordinator John Fassel and a super-aggressive head coach in Sean McVay, and Belichick won’t be the only one wondering what the Rams are up to when the punt team is on the field Sunday.
Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas made Hekker throwing a pass a prop bet. “Yes” opened at plus-400 and “no” at minus-550.
As a passer, Hekker is 12 for 20 for 168 yards, 11 first downs and one touchdown, including the playoffs. That makes for a robust passer rating of 102.8. That’s more pass attempts than any other non-quarterback in the last seven years. He’s not just hitting coverage team players that are left uncovered. Hekker’s 12-yard pass to Sam Shields in the NFC championship game in New Orleans was on a curl route to a receiver who was covered.
The Rams don’t wait for prime fake opportunities – at midfield with a short distance needed to convert. They’re prone to call a fake anytime, anyplace. It was fourth-and-5 on their 30 and the Rams were trailing the Saints 13-0 when they ran the fake to Shields. Botch that and the Saints would have been in range to take a quick three-score lead. Hekker hit tight end Gerald Everett for a 7-yard completion against the Bears on fourth-and-6 from the Rams 28-yard line midway through the second quarter of the Week 14 meeting. Blow that and the Bears would have been in range to pad their 6-3 lead.
Stopping Hekker from throwing isn’t as easy as just looking out for it either.
“You think you are getting one thing and it is tough to prepare for the multitude of options a special-teams unit can have to run fakes,” Hekker said. “It’s not a throw to one guy. However you draw it up, you can attack the return team in a bunch of different ways. Really to be able to continue to surprise people is going to be a dwindling factor, but you can’t just play defensive stay the whole time because you’re not going to get any return opportunities and you’re not going to block kicks out of that. You have to pick and choose when you want to try and defend against the fake.”
“McVay is fearless,” Fassel said. “He asks for what you’ve got and you give it to him and sometimes he takes it and sometimes he doesn’t. It’s fun to just feel like you have a chance because he’s as creative as anyone.”
Hekker quarterbacked his high school team to the state championship game in Washington and had visions of playing the position at Oregon State.
“I walked on thinking, ‘OK, maybe they will let me start throwing the ball in practice and I’ll get into the quarterback room and I’ll earn a scholarship there,’ ” he said. “That was in the back of my mind. Being a quarterback, I never wanted to give that up. I quickly realized, I think we had six quarterbacks, maybe seven, but I realized if I was going to earn a scholarship it would be punting.”
He wound up beating out Patriots punter Ryan Allen for that scholarship. Allen transferred to Louisiana Tech and Hekker wound up signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
Former Bears punter Brad Maynard was a free agent looking for a job when his agent called Fassel.
“(Fassel) said, ‘I’ve got this kid from Oregon State, I think he’s going to be pretty good, so we’re just going to stick with this rookie and see what happens,” Maynard said. “I marvel at what Hekker has been able to do from a punting standpoint. The guy is incredible.”
Maynard was effective in the fake game during his career. He was 5-for-8 passing for 94 yards and two touchdowns and once ran for a 20-yard gain on a fake. Two of the incompletions came on plays hampered by snap trouble.
But Hekker is next level with what he does and how the plays are designed. Under the previous coaching staff, Hekker would play scout-team quarterback at times during organized team activities when “occasionally we got the better of the defense,” he said.
I asked Rams offensive assistant Jedd Fisch, who has been a coordinator and quarterbacks coach in the NFL and college, if Hekker could have made it in college as a quarterback.
“I have never seen him play the position, but I have seen him make some unbelievable throws in practice and in games,” Fisch said. “He makes some great throws – real quarterback throws. But I don’t know if he could play the position.”
Fassel surely has some ideas cooked up for the Patriots, who are as sound as any team in the league on special teams. He’s not working from a playbook of fakes. He draws up possibilities on a weekly basis. Sometimes the situation arises. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“The biggest thing is knowing what your guys can do and then trying to find opportunities to do it,” Fassel said. “Some of it is simple and some of it is pretty complex and every game is different. He loves to throw routes way more than he loves to punt the football.”
It’s no wonder Belichick and the Patriots are paying attention and again telling the Rams how impressed they are with Hekker.
“It’s flattering,” Hekker said. “I am (definitely) happy to receive those comments from Coach Belichick. A couple years back when he said that stuff, I got a text from my mom and brothers, ‘Look at what Bill is saying about you!’ “
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