FOXBOROUGH — It’s hard to know what kind of answer you’ll get from Bill Belichick when you ask him about one of his current players. Sometimes it’s an answer that’s serviceable for the purposes of a story, but not very illuminating; sometimes it’s lukewarm.
Every once in a while, however, Belichick will surprise and give a detailed, positive assessment, as he did Friday when asked about the development of second-year punter Ryan Allen.
Herewith, a condensed version of what was a 358-word response:
“I think he’s improved a lot. Everything’s been better: his consistency, his situational play. I’d say he’s made a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2,” Belichick said. “I think he’s still got a ways to go, got a lot in front of him, but he’s definitely made a jump. That’s another guy that works really hard at his job, knows his job, really studies everything about it; obviously the mechanics to punting, but also the situational part of it.
“Holding, he’s done a good job as our holder, and all the other things that go into punting . . . I think Ryan certainly has a much better [understanding] — not that he had a poor [understanding], I’d say he had a good understanding, but I’d say it’s even much better given the almost two years of additional work and practice. Even though maybe not every situation has come up in the game, it’s certainly come up numerous times in practice and so I think you can definitely see progress in those situations, some of which are infrequent in the game, but you see him making progress as a player.”
One of Allen’s standout moments this season came in the first quarter against the Lions last month. The Patriots went three and out on their second possession, and Allen was pinned against his goal line.
Danny Aiken muffed the snap, but Allen fielded it and drove the ball 66 yards. Nate Ebner tackled returner Jeremy Ross for just a 1-yard return, and the Lions took over at their 21.
They lost ground after Matthew Stafford was sacked on first down, punted, and the Patriots scored their first touchdown in what would become a rout of the NFC North leaders.
As the Patriots stumbled earlier this season, the argument could be made that no one was playing his position better than Allen.
Signed last year as a rookie free agent out of Louisiana Tech, the affable Oregon native beat out incumbent Zoltan Mesko in his first camp and went on to set a franchise rookie record with a 39.9 yards per attempt net average. He’s bettered that this season, entering Sunday’s finale with a net average of 40.0.
He took the year of experience and learned everything he could from it.
“There’s so much to learn in that first year, especially playing for an organization like this and being able to get a couple of games into the playoffs like last year,” Allen said. “I literally think there was an experience or a type of situation in every single game last year that I learned and went through that I took something away from.”
With 138 NFL punts under his belt now, Allen feels more confident when he steps onto the field, no longer tripped up, even for a moment, about whether he’s about to do the right thing.
“When I was a rookie, those situations would present themselves and there’s that slight moment of kind of second-guessing or kind of having to reassure yourself that that’s what you should be doing or that’s where you should be aiming,” he said. “Now it’s become fluent and I think that’s probably just a repetition thing. I think when you do it so much and you work on it . . . you start building that repertoire, your arsenal. As long as you’re paying attention, you should always keep improving, and that’s where I am and that’s where I want to stay.”
Allen credits kicker Stephen Gostkowski with helping him stay focused during games. About five games into last season, Allen said, Gostkowski pulled him aside and said that developing an in-game routine would help. He took the advice, and now is so in-the-moment that he doesn’t realize until a game is over if he’s only been called upon to punt once, as happened against the Bears and Colts.
“No one wants to see me out there, right?” Allen said with a smile. “I’m always doing my same progression so it doesn’t feel any different. It just means I wasn’t able to go out there. At the end of the day when you’re sitting there going, ‘How did I do?’ I’m like, ‘Well I only had one.’
“It really doesn’t feel much different throughout the game, it’s just after, postgame, when you’re sitting there going, ‘Oh, I only had one rep today, and I held [for field goals and extra points], but the holds were good.’ It’s an after-the-fact thought. But it doesn’t feel any different — it’s the same progression, it’s first, second, third down, and then go over with the team ready to go on fourth down if we’re needed. And that’s one big key, I feel like it keeps me into my own mental place, is to stay in a progression.”
Like most players, Allen can acknowledge his improvement, but strives to be better.
“I do feel like I’ve improved in overall areas of my game and my performances, but there’s definitely room for improvement still. I don’t think I’m optimizing everything I’ve got, and it’s just a matter of mastering your craft,” he said.