Despite the short notice, Miller packed his bags and drove to the airport feeling prepared. In fact, the 32-year-old had expected this very call, for one crucial reason: Like the punter the Broncos would face in Week 2 — the Washington Commanders’ Tress Way — Miller also kicks footballs with his left foot.
Including Way, only four left-footed punters have lined up deep in the NFL in 2023, which is half the tally of two years ago and the fewest of any season since 2000. Even smaller in ranks is an anonymous group of out-of-the-league lefties, such as Miller, whom teams call when they are about to play one of the few active-rostered lefties and want a sneak peek of the real thing.
“It’s giving their returners a chance to catch a counterclockwise, left-footed spiral off a live leg instead of a machine,” Miller said. “That’s the common denominator with these quote-unquote workouts.”
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Officially, the league transaction wire lists these events as ordinary free agent workouts, the same as countless others that teams hold each month, whether for the purpose of finding injury replacements, fixing poor performance or simply keeping tabs on potential options. Unlike hopefuls at different positions, however, Miller and his ilk hold no illusions about their chances of earning a contract when the phone rings.
“Usually it’s a turn-and-burn trip,” Miller said, and his Broncos visit was no exception. “They put me up in the team hotel, picked me up in the morning, did some medical clearance stuff, and then, boom — I’m on the field after practice. I hit probably 25 to 30 balls, got their returners comfortable for Tress Way, shook some hands, and grabbed the next flight out. Standard lefty workout process.” Indeed, the only noteworthy deviation was the $60 per diem Denver gave Miller for his return journey.
“That covered the exact price of my gas and parking at the airport for a night, which was appreciated,” said Miller, a 2014 graduate of Southern Utah of the Football Championship Subdivision. He has had brief stints on the practice squads of the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams (twice) but never appeared in a regular season NFL game. “It sounds silly, but to guys like us, it truly does go a long way.”
On one hand — or, if you prefer, one foot — these lefty scout punters are little more than the gridiron equivalents of Hollywood stuntmen, resigned to uncredited roles and tabbed only for their ability to seem like someone else. It is a life at once paradoxical — good enough to give a look to an NFL team’s returners, but not good enough to get a longer one from a front office — and purgatorial.
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“You do 10 workouts in the season, if you don’t get signed, you’re essentially not making any money,” said Miller, who has spent the past two springs with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals in between gigs valeting cars and providing personal training to high school kickers and punters. “But you can’t really advance your career and go get a real 9-to-5 in the meantime [while also] hoping for the phone to ring.”
The fact that these extra-special teamers have come to exist in the NFL ecosystem at all, bopping and booting their way around the league’s fringes, speaks to the value of their uncommon footedness — and to the universal truth it symbolizes. As CBS Sports analyst Phil Simms said, parroting a hypothetical general manager’s thought process: “Let’s cover every base, every scenario, because we don’t want our punt returner to drop a d— ball because the spin is different.
“Now, if that doesn’t tell you everything about the NFL, what does?”
To many football insiders, the concept of lefty scout punters is hardly new. Simms, for instance, became familiar as a young quarterback for the Giants in the early 1980s, when on certain game weeks he found himself unwittingly roped by then-special teams coordinator Bill Belichick into an anxiety-inducing auxiliary duty.
“I punted some in college, and I’m left-footed, so anytime we [were playing] a lefty, he would walk up and say, ‘Hey Simms, when practice is over, you think you can punt a few to my guys?’ ” Simms recalled, deepening his voice to mimic Belichick’s classic gruffness. “Hell, that was more pressure than playing in the Super Bowl. I’m sweating just thinking about it.”
Simms’s attempts paled in comparison to the kicks Belichick’s returners were fielding in games. “Some of them were friggin’ awful, like 20 yards,” Simms said. “Every once in a while, I’d hit one and turn it over and go, ‘Finally! I did it!’ ” Regardless, Simms continued to reluctantly moonlight throughout many of the 12 seasons he and Belichick spent with the Giants together. “It must’ve been good enough, because he kept asking me,” Simms said. “Or maybe I was his only choice.”
It is difficult to trace the full history of teams going out of their way to prepare for lefty punters, given the lack of publicity such efforts have historically received. (Even today, the most reliable source for chronicling workouts is a 5,000-follower Instagram account, @kickercentral.) But NFL coaches have been concerned with the unique challenge lefties pose for at least half a century. Among the earliest references in newspaper archives, from August 1973, detailed how then-Washington coach George Allen had brought in an air compressor-powered device “that simulates punts,” to help his returners at training camp.
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“Because we don’t have any left-footed punters and we have to play the [then-St. Louis] Cardinals twice,” Allen explained to reporters. “Their punter, Donny Anderson, punts with his left foot, and with the reverse spin, the ball is hard to handle because players are not familiar with that type of spin. The machine can duplicate the left-foot spin and it might help us win a game.”
Beginning in the mid-’80s, the practice of tapping humans for lefty simulations became increasingly common; heading into a November 1986 showdown with the San Diego Chargers’ Ralf Mojsiejenko, the Los Angeles Raiders went so far as to bring in four of them, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 1999, after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers muffed three lefty punts in a preseason game, Coach Tony Dungy lamented to local media: “I think the next time we face a lefty like that, we’ll either import a practice squad punter for the week or we’ll get the J[UGS] machine going that way. Either that or we’re going to be like baseball people and rest [our returner] against the lefties.”
Miller, for his part, didn’t quite grasp the effect his left-footedness had on certain returners until he was amassing clips for a highlight reel of his junior season. “In an 11-game season, there were five or six where the returner was muffing the punt,” he said. “No one bats an eye at a lefty in really any other sport, but that’s when I went, ‘Huh, there may be something here long-term.’”
As the ranks of left-footed punters receiving regular work in the league swelled throughout the 21st century — from four in 2000 to a high of 10 in 2017 — so too did opportunities for their free agent counterparts. Miller estimated that he traveled for 13 of these quote-unquote workouts during the 2018 season alone; another lefty, Ryan Anderson, pegged the same total for himself in 2019. Their packed itineraries suggest the widespread belief that nothing beats a live leg.
Now in his sixth year of pecking around pro football after leaving Rutgers in 2018, Anderson, like Miller, has signed a handful of practice squad contracts but never kicked in an NFL game. Most recently, he was waived by the Chicago Bears in late July after just three months on payroll. “Brock and I can both attest to this,” said Anderson, who pays the bills through his day job as a sales manager for Vertical Raise, a youth sports fundraising platform. “We want to be more than just the workout guy. But everyone’s path is different.”
The 28-year-old and his agent have honed a response to calls they get during the season.
“We ask the teams to be honest,” Anderson said. “Like, ‘Hey, are you bringing me in to work me out as a lefty, or to actually get a look?’ ”
Assuming the answer is the former, Anderson has his packing process down pat. “Typically it’s two nights of clothes,” he said. “My cleats are the first things … always bring a band, a small roller, and a Theragun … a couple of footballs, so I can do drops in the room. Ideally you get one night in a hotel to get your legs loose, but sometimes I’m four hours off the plane, working out that same day, and back in less than 30 hours.”
Teams usually handle travel logistics, from booking flights to providing airport rides. “Sometimes they send a scout or an intern, the low-end-of-the-totem-pole front office guys, I guess,” Miller said. “The 49ers are different. They send a security guard from Levi’s [Stadium], because their practice field is on-site there.”
Hotels and meals are covered, too; after landing in Denver earlier this season, Miller fueled up for his workout with free room service. “I got a dessert, nothing extreme,” Miller said. “Tried not to run up the bill.”
The workouts also follow a predictable format. “As the team’s finishing [practice], we’ll go out there, get warmed up, then the returners, the special teams coaches, and some of the scouts will pop over to the other field,” Anderson said. Often there won’t even be a long snapper to hike the ball. Miller named his two biggest need-to-knows: “Are they underhanding or are they snapping, and how many am I hitting?”
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The amount of punting these lefties actually do varies depending on the whims of not only their on-the-ground hosts but also Mother Nature. “I’ve hit as little as 10 [footballs] before, because the weather was horrible,” Anderson said. At the other extreme, Miller said, he’s hit upwards of 60 or 70 balls. “I always like that,” he added. “If I flew all the way from San Diego to Jacksonville, I want to kick more and get my money’s worth.”
After showing off their hang time, however, lefty punters aren’t left with much time for hanging. “There are trips where I shower and not even an hour later I’m on a flight,” Miller said. If any talk happens, it comes with a purpose. During the 2019 season, when Anderson twice worked out for the 49ers, Dante Pettis approached him at the end of each session. Pettis holds the NCAA career record for punt return touchdowns, and he wanted to pick Anderson’s brain about the spin and draw of a left-footed ball. “Some returners are super inquisitive,” Anderson said.
The whirlwind nature of these workouts can be taxing on the punter’s body. “Sitting on the plane sore after kicking 60 to 70 balls is not the most fun thing to do,” Miller said. Harder still for the lefty scout punter is the mental toll. “The younger me was just so excited to be in the building,” Miller said. “Then, as time went on, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been doing this basically for two full seasons, and doing well, but nothing’s coming of it. This kind of sucks.”
The challenge has only gotten tougher given the relative lack of left-footed peers in the league. Only Way, the Cleveland Browns’ Corey Bojorquez and the Giants’ Jamie Gillan have logged at least a dozen punts through Week 11. (A fourth, Brad Wing, punted 11 times over two weeks as an injury replacement for the Pittsburgh Steelers, returning from a six-year NFL absence during which the 49ers brought him in to serve as a pre-Super Bowl LIV stand-in for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Dustin Colquitt.) Even the New England Patriots and Belichick, who for decades famously employed almost exclusively lefty punters, now start a righty.
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Aside from Miller’s workout with the Broncos, according to @kickercentral, only four other lefties have been called in for workouts this fall, each just once: Wing with the Steelers in Week 2, Matt Haack with the 49ers in Week 6, Jake Gerardi with the Eagles in Week 8 and Julian Diaz with the Raiders in Week 9. “You talk to any special teams coach, they all know there’s a different type of punt with a lefty ball,” Anderson said. “So you would think there would be more of us out there right now.”
As it is, Anderson and Miller both reconcile their winding paths with the reality that each pit stop puts them closer to breaking through and signing an ever-elusive contract. “They wouldn’t just bring us in because we’re lefties,” Anderson said. “We have to give them a good look.” Miller did just that with the Rams last year before their Week 17 game against Broncos lefty Corliss Waitman, parlaying what he initially assumed to be a “standard lefty workout” into two weeks on their practice squad, the paycheck for which served as a welcome holiday bonus.
“It’s allowed me to keep doing what I love,” Miller said. “If I was born right-footed instead of left, I would’ve retired a long time ago. It’s been such a blessing to be a left-footed punter.”