Graham checks the outcome after the hold
*Today we continue a look back at the Jets' numerical roster and each respective player's individual 2006 season. This regular feature is scheduled to run throughout each week in the offseason.
*When evaluating New York Jets' second-year players who made lasting impacts on the 2006 season, it's often easy to forget that punter Ben Graham is among the group. Graham just completed his second season in the NFL even though he is one the team's elder statesmen at age 33.
The Australian native made waves in the American football scene this season when he was voted a special teams' co-captain by his peers. After serving as captain of his Australian team – the Geelong Football Club - for three consecutive seasons, head coach Eric Mangini believes that such a unique set of honors may be a first.
"I don't know if Ben is the first Australian captain of an American sports team," Mangini said in September. "And I couldn't find out if Ben is the only guy to be a captain of a professional team in two pro sports."
"I'm in a category that not too many are in, to be playing in two sports," added Graham. "To be captain in both is amazing. It will be something I will look back on in my career, and it will be very special. It is a real honor – being appointed by your peers is something quite special to me."
The appointment was not just based on Graham's leadership off the field. His teammates recognized Graham's hard work and determination on the field to improve in a sport he picked up no sooner than the age of 30. Whereas most NFL players have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft, Graham made a late transition based on athleticism and the will to learn.
Even though Graham found success uncharacteristically fast for the average NFL player, it wasn't all smooth sailing. After spending a lot of time learning the proper techniques for kicking in the Australian Football League, it was difficult and an entirely new for Graham to master the art of NFL punting.
"The kicking game is different," Graham said. "Everyone in our sport in Australia kicks the ball, and every team has about 200 kicks per game and they can be anything from 10 yards to 60 yards. We kick the ball like quarterbacks throw it; we pinpoint players down the field."
"It's not only his second year, but it's his second year doing this period," said special teams coach Mike Westhoff of Graham in November. "Our punting skill and the Australian rules kicking skill are different, very different techniques. So he has had a great deal of learning; we made a drastic change this winter. He is so athletic that he accepted it well and handled it very well. He is a good punter; he has incredible strength."
In 2005, Graham became the oldest rookie in NFL history to start a season with a team when the then 31-year-old punter debuted as the Jets' punter. After that rookie season of learning on the fly, Graham was determined to make another transition from wide-eyed rookie to skilled veteran. Graham, equipped with one of the strongest legs in the league, continues to improve with consistency and technical adjustments.
"Graham is really a guy that performs everyday," said Westhoff, who has coached professional football since 1982. "The one thing about him that you constantly see is he is always striving to get better. He studies himself, we study the tapes, we chart everything, and everyday he works to do something better. I admire that in anyone, certainly how hard he has worked - a guy who has just come out of nowhere and really never punted."
At the conclusion of the 2006 regular season, Graham ranked 12th in the league in punting. His average of 44.2 yards per punt was just four yards less than the league's best, fellow Aussie, Mat McBriar. Westhoff also pointed out that two of Graham's best punts – a 61-yard net punt at Jacksonville and a 59-yard net against Detroit – were nullified due to penalties against the Jets' special teams unit.
Another trade that Graham has picked up is holding for placekicker Mike Nugent and long snapper James Dearth. Unfortunately, what first pops into mind when recalling the holding duties of Graham in 2006 were his mishaps in the latter part of the season. In week 15, the ball slipped out of Graham's hands on the slick Minnesota fieldturf. A week later during a rain-soaked Monday Night Football game in Miami, Dearth's slightly high snap squirted through the awaiting hands of Graham. But Nugent did make his final 21 field goal attempts, including a 30-yard game-winner against the Dolphins.
"He has been a pretty good holder since he took over that role. Just like anybody else, he is working hard to make sure that it doesn't happen again," Mangini said of Graham. "He held the ball pretty well in the important field goal in the Miami game."
Graham, who has helped pin opponents down inside their 20-yard line 44 times the past two seasons, is one of the Jets' finer athletes so his holding and punting would figure to improve.
"Ben is a talented man and has really done a heck of a job adapting to a skill that is in a lot of ways foreign to him," Westhoff said of Graham. "He is very athletic and he never held before; he's a very good holder. We just worked at it; we just did it in the off-season. It was Easter weekend, we were here and he learned and he's become very proficient at it. So here is a guy that really works at his skills and his trade."