It's a new year for Ben Graham, and fittingly for the Jets' punter from Down Under, there's a new landscape — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a new landscaper.
"So far, so good," Graham said in the past few days about starting to work with Kevin O'Dea, the Jets' new special teams coach. "Kevin's a guy who can really help me, coming into my fourth year of punting. He's more of a kicking analyst. He breaks down the technique with a lot of film study. He's got a keen eye for detail."
Graham is like all of the Jets' returning specialists. They have so much respect for Mike Westhoff, already rehabbing following his surgery last month and not a bad thing to say about him.
Yet Westhoff, who is out of coaching for the year, admits he has never been a kick doctor. As he told newyorkjets.com after his procedure about his relationships with punters and kickers:
"I'm not Butch Harmon, PGA Tour swing coach. I think I do know how to pick 'em and how to practice 'em. But in this instance Kevin's expertise with kicking will probably be pretty good for our guys."
Graham also turned to golf — and to the Tour's beast who finally lost a tournament this year at Doral on Sunday — to explain how he sees his relationship developing with O'Dea.
"It's sort of like when Tiger Woods gets a new coach to work on a new swing — that's how I feel," Graham said. "Everyone knows what Tiger went through, they all know where he is now. I feel the same thing. ... I feel already that he can identify my strengths and weaknesses and turn me into the punter I want to be."
O'Dea's work with Neil Rackers as Arizona's ST coach in 2004-05 and with Robbie Gould as Chicago's assistant ST coach the past two seasons is well-known. But he also helped Scott Player nail a career-high 32 inside-the-20 punts in 2004, tied for second in the NFL that season. And Brad Maynard and the Bears' punt cover team allowed 5.6 yards per return last year, third in the league.
Graham has been consistent with his gross, averaging 43.7 yards on 212 career punts, and his net has been a decent 37.5, although last season he had a career low of 36.6. While he is looking to pull those numbers up, he's also become familiar with his surroundings after three years in the NFL on top of 12 seasons (three as captain) with the Geelong Cats of the Australian Football League.
"I guess coming from a different background, I always wanted to hang onto the fact that I'm a footballer," he said. "But the longer your in the NFL, you fine-tune what your actual job is, so you can get rid of all the distractions and just concentrate on what you're doing.
"It's a team sport, and being in this environment for three years, you know the system well, you know the coaches well, you know your teammates well. It's a comfortable environment where you come in, you work hard, get your work done and everyone's working hard to improve."
That, of course, has already begun for the Jets with the opening of their off-season strength and conditioning program under coach Sal Alosi and his staff.
"This year there's an emphasis on training smarter, which still prepares your body very well," Graham said. "We're doing a lot of cross-training. It's hard to explain, but instead of spending, say, an hour and a half lifting heavy weights, that'll now be 45 minutes and the other 45 minutes will be more intense, like almost warmups, where your body's getting acclimated, especially early on in the workout program."
Some may think Graham, who will turn 35 during the season, is starting to feel creaky, but he stated that "age is not a factor for me."
"Coach Westhoff, when I first sat in the chair in his office, before I punted for him even in the off-season program, asked me, 'What are your concerns about this?' " Graham recalled. "I said, 'The first one is my age.' He looked at me and said, 'As long as you can kick that ball, I don't care how old you are.
"So the way I see it, I'm no different to Mike Koenen, I'm no different to Mike Nugent," he said, mentioning another couple of fourth-year footman, Atlanta's punter and the Jets' kicker.
Needless to say, head coach Eric Mangini, who first scouted Graham in Australia as a then-Jets assistant coach back in the previous millennium (1997 to be exact), has to remain impressed. And Graham, with his own skill and pride, Westhoff's teachings and O'Dea's detail work on his side, has already begun to take on Year 4 as an American footballer.