|Todd Sauerbrun has the fifth-best gross punting average in NFL history. (JACK DEMPSEY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)|
Patriots sign Sauerbrun
Veteran punter brings plenty of ability, baggage
FOXBOROUGH -- Todd Sauerbrun woke up early yesterday morning as an unemployed NFL punter, but just like one of his booming punts, his fortune turned over quickly, as by late morning he was the punter for a first-place team that's one win away from clinching a division title and a playoff berth.
The Patriots signed Sauerbrun, a 12-year veteran who has the fifth-highest gross punting average in NFL history (44 yards), to a one-year deal, filling a void that was created earlier this week when Ken Walter (knee) joined fellow punter Josh Miller (shoulder) on injured reserve.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, the 33-year-old Sauerbrun, who has previously played for the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, and most recently the Denver Broncos, comes with both a big leg and considerable baggage.
While with Carolina, Sauerbrun became the first punter since the 1970 merger to lead his conference in punting three straight seasons, averaging 45.9 yards from 2001 to 2003, the highest gross average for any three-year period in NFL history. He topped the league in gross average in 2001 and 2002. His 2001 average of 47.5 yards was the highest since 1963.
Last season punting for the Broncos, Sauerbrun averaged 43.8 yards per kick, eighth best in the league.
However, he was released by the Broncos Oct. 10 after sitting out the first four games of the season while serving a league-mandated suspension for testing positive for an illegal performance-enhancing substance. Sauerbrun tested positive for the dietary supplement ephedra. The league banned ephedra in 2001, following the heatstroke death of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer during training camp that summer.
It wasn't the first time Sauerbrun was linked with illegal performance enhancers. A March 2005 "60 Minutes" report said that Sauerbrun and two other Panthers had a South Carolina doctor fill prescriptions for banned substances weeks before Carolina played the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Sauerbrun, who has never failed an NFL steroid test, was alleged to have received testosterone cream and the injectable steroid stanozolol. While his name was sullied, he was not suspended by the league and did not face legal action.
That was not the case when he was arrested for drunken driving in December 2004. Sauerbrun pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and was fined $100 and placed on unsupervised probation for a year.
Sauerbrun was not available for comment yesterday and Patriots coach Bill Belichick dodged questions about Sauerbrun's past transgressions, vaguely referencing his suspension earlier this year.
"It was a league issue. You have to talk to the league about it," said Belichick. "All that stuff is done on a confidentiality basis. Even if I knew anything, I wouldn't say anything about it, but we're not really privy to that type of confidential information."
However, Sauerbrun's agent, David Canter, addressed his client's past missteps.
"Todd feels like he's been justly punished for his mistake," said Canter. "He took an over-the-counter medication, a diet pill, that had ephedra in it. He's been out for the entire season, but a lot of that is more circumstance than ability. He's not the devil everyone has painted him to be. He's made mistakes in the past, absolutely, but he's paid a penance for his mistakes. It cost him millions of dollars."
Sauerbrun should certainly enhance the performance of New England's punting game. The Patriots rank 28th in the league in gross punting average (41.3 yards per punt) and 27th in net average (35.2). The importance of a punter was on display in the Patriots' 21-0 loss to the Miami Dolphins earlier this month, when Miami punter Donnie Jones pinned New England inside its 5-yard line on three occasions.
Sauerbrun's cumulative net average of 37.3 yards per punt between 2000 and 2005 was the best in the league during that time period and his gross average of 45.1 yards was the second-best mark in the NFL over the same period.
This is the second time Sauerbrun, who does have experience holding for field goals but is not expected to hold tomorrow, has replaced Walter. The Panthers signed him in 2001 on the same day they released Walter.
The Patriots already had two punters on their practice squad, Tom Malone, who was signed Wednesday and Danny Baugher, who was picked up Oct. 10, and had also auditioned veteran Sean Landeta earlier in the week.
"We looked at all of our options and we feel like this was the best one for the football team," said Belichick. "That's what we tried to do -- do what's best for the football team. That's always No. 1."
Canter said that the signing is a win-win. The Patriots get one of the best punters in NFL history -- statistically speaking -- and Sauerbrun gets another chance -- both to punt and rehabilitate his image.
"He's extremely grateful for the opportunity to go out [tomorrow] against Jacksonville and punt in a National Football League game," said Canter. "That's his passion and to have that taken away from him, it had been extremely difficult. It's been a rough year for Todd."