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Rams have their own 'cheat code' with punter Johnny Hekker

In Johnny Hekker, right, Rams coach Sean McVay inherited not just one of the best punters in NFL history but one who's a threat on trick plays, too. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

SEATTLE -- There might not be a single NFL player better at his respective position than Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker, whose value is only diminished by the perceptions of his job title. But Hekker is also winding down the least productive season of his storied career, through no fault of his own.

Hekker, a three-time All-Pro during his first five NFL seasons, has attempted only 49 punts in the first 13 games of 2017, fewer than 26 others. He's on pace to finish with 60, 18 less than his previous career low and 38 fewer than his 2016 output.

The Rams, under first-year head coach Sean McVay, have already clinched their first winning season in 14 years and are on pace to be the second team ever to go from last to first in scoring within a 12-month stretch. But their resurgence is perhaps best depicted by the increase in Hekker's inactivity.

"If you would've told me last season we'd be sitting here, I would've thought you were crazy," Hekker said. "But I think the second we met with Coach McVay and the rest of the coaches, and saw how this team worked, and just the maturity with which we work, and the ways we've upgraded at key positions in the locker room, I knew that this was a possibility."

The Rams' crucial Week 15 road game against the Seattle Seahawks (8-5) is another return home for Hekker, who grew up about 20 miles north in Bothell, Washington. He played at CenturyLink Field as a high school quarterback, a career path he deviated from while attempting to walk on as a punter at Oregon State.

Hekker beat out current New England Patriots punter Ryan Allen for a spot on the Beavers' roster in 2008, then signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and eventually put himself on a trajectory to potentially go down among the best ever. Last season, while punting 98 times for an offense that finished dead last in every major category, Hekker broke his own single-season mark for net average (46.0 yards) and pinned a record 51 punts inside the 20-yard line, allowing only one touchback. It was the greatest season a punter had ever produced.

In a recent New York Times profile, John Turney, a prominent football historian, said Hekker is on a path which could lead to joining Ray Guy as the only full-time punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fans might not appreciate him, but teammates do.

"If we have a good punt, and we pin them down inside the 5, watch Aaron Donald, who's maybe the best player in the NFL," said Jake McQuaide, the only long-snapper Hekker has ever worked with in the NFL. "Watch him come off the sideline, the way he celebrates with Johnny. And Aaron Donald knows football. He appreciates what Johnny does. If you think you're a football guy, and you don't understand that that's important, you're going to have to reassess."

McQuaide was referring to the way field position affects results. In the six seasons since Hekker has arrived, the Rams (9-4) have allowed 6.27 yards per punt return, by far the lowest in the NFL. They were tied for the fifth-fewest touchbacks from 2012 to 2016, even though they attempted the third-most punts. This season -- on a team that scores enough to take full advantage of Hekker's value -- opponents need an average of 72.5 yards per drive to reach the end zone, which sits within the top 10.

Hekker basically won a game with a 78-yard punt against the New York Jets in Week 10 last season. This year, in Week 13, he flipped the momentum of another with a 70-yard punt from his own end zone against the Arizona Cardinals.

"I feel like we have a cheat code with him," Rams wide receiver-turned-running back Tavon Austin said. "That's what it is."

John Fassel, in his sixth year as the Rams' special-teams coordinator, was asked if he considered Hekker the Michael Jordan of punters, and hedged.

"Eh, I would say more of the Russell Westbrook kind -- the triple-double threat who can rebound, score and assist," Fassel said. "Johnny can punt, he can throw, he can run."

Hekker is built like a receiver, at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, but it's his throwing ability which separates him. Hekker has attempted 14 passes since the start of 2012, 11 more than any other punter. "And we've probably called off more than we've actually run," Fassel said. Nine of those have been completed, eight of which have resulted in first downs.

"If you're a punt-return team, you're attacking the punt team -- you're rushing, you're returning, they have to stop you," McQuaide said. "But when our punt team takes the field, they have to stop us."

It's a credit to Hekker, whom Fassel considers "a quarterback at heart."

"It just kind of worked out where punting became his thing," Fassel said, "and he mastered that."

Hekker has done it with a growing menu of punts. There's the end-over-end, a specialty for pinning teams deep in their own territory. The spiral kick, for those booming punts. The knuckler, used against returners with shaky ball skills. The pooch, for the most dangerous of return men. And "The Banana," a misdirection punt Hekker learned from an Australian-born teammate in college.

"It's the same reason a pitcher has different pitches: to keep the batter guessing," Hekker said. "I'm trying to make the return team and the returner a little uneasy back there."

Hekker has two other punts that remain a work in progress and won't be unveiled until next season, if then. He won't debut punts in a game until he can execute them without flaw, but he won't take time away from his weekly preparation to experiment with new ones.

Hekker, a team captain for the fourth consecutive season, is a diligent perfectionist that way. He has earned the respect of teammates and peers to a degree few specialists can in this ecosystem. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was in rare form while waxing poetic about Hekker last year, saying: "This guy is a weapon. I mean, he's not a good player. He's a weapon." The Rams value Hekker so much that they recently tacked on two more years to an extension that was still four seasons from expiring.

He might go down as the very best at what he does, but that doesn't necessarily encompass his drive.

"I wouldn't say I'm motivated by that," said Hekker, on track for his fourth Pro Bowl invite. "I'm more concerned with being a part of helping the team be successful. That stuff can come and go, and recognition is fleeting. But making memories and being here with these teammates and having successful seasons is important to me."