Kicking it up a notch
KICKING IT UP A NOTCH
With punter Mitch Berger, the Saints have signed a multipurpose player who can hold and kick field goals, kick off and punt, filling a key special-teams role
Thursday August 07, 2003
By Amalie Benjamin
In a prime example of bargain shopping, the Saints picked up a four-for-one deal in the offseason: free-agent punter Mitch Berger.
That's one player for four jobs.
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Berger can punt, kick off, hold and kick field goals, making him a key acquisition for the Saints special teams.
"The more you can do and the more you're doing for the team, the harder you are to replace," said Berger, who made the Pro Bowl in 1999 as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
"That's what I've banked on. If you're just doing one job, they can replace you with one guy. The old saying in football is, the more you can do, the more valuable you are."
Berger, who has played for four different teams in nine NFL seasons, most recently the St. Louis Rams, takes over for unrestricted free agent Toby Gowin, who signed with the Cowboys.
Berger and Gowin are two of the few NFL players who can perform all four tasks, though Gowin has attempted just one field goal in his career and Berger has never tried one in an NFL game.
Berger "matches the role that we were looking for in being able to do those four jobs," special teams coach Al Everest said. "Not many people can do that. You've got a lot of guys that are punters that can hold. You don't have many that can kickoff, punt, hold and kick field goals."
Everest, who said Berger could be the Saints' long field-goal kicker, knew the team needed to replace Gowin with someone who performs the same jobs on the field -- and Berger was a prime candidate.
It's not the first time the two punters have been linked. When Berger was with the Vikings in 2000 and about to become a free agent, the team brought in Gowin as a possible replacement. When Minnesota re-signed Berger, Gowin signed with the Saints.
Throughout his career, Berger has been a complement to kickers who are accurate field-goal kickers but lack the distance required for kickoffs, like his former teammate in Minnesota, Gary Anderson. Saints kicker John Carney is the strongest kicker Berger has been paired with, he said.
"These days, a punter who kicks off is the way the kicking game has been evolving, and Mitch is one of the better kickoff/punter guys in the league," Carney said. "And Mitch kicks field goals as well. To have the ability to do both is a big value to the team."
Berger has built himself into a jack-of-all-trades during his career. Originally a kicker during his years at Colorado, he learned to hold in his first year in the pros.
"When I got in the league, I thought that when they changed the rules to a one-inch tee, I thought that somebody who could punt and kick the ball off really well would be very valuable," he said.
Acquiring a proven veteran allows the Saints special teams to stay on course in preparing for the upcoming season, especially because Berger's skills match up well against Gowin.
But off the field, the team has to adapt to a new type of punter.
In stark contrast to the stereotypical punter, Berger rarely stops talking.
"He's a bubbly, vivacious-type person," Everest said. "If Mitch has something to say, he's going to say it. He's the opposite of Toby (Gowin). Mitch is very extroverted, very talkative, likes to share his feelings, emotions and ideas with you.
"Most of them (kickers) have to deal with themselves all the time. They have to learn how to control their emotions because you can't be high, you can't be low in a skill position like that. You have to be consistent. Most of them are a little bit less talkative, a little more introverted."
The fun-loving Berger takes his job seriously, but not too seriously. He wants to make sure he enjoys his six months spent on the football field.
But, he warns, he does work hard. It's not all fun out there.
"I speak my mind a little bit, have a good time," he said. "I've always been more about trying to enjoy this, trying to make it a fun job. I try to see what other guys are kind of loose, easier-going guys and try to have fun with them, try to stay away from the more serious guys."
Joining one of the NFL's best special teams units has Berger smiling, though he's smiling a lot of the time.
"I haven't been around that kind of speed in the last few years on special teams," Berger said. "This team has got as much speed on special teams as I've ever seen. I hope I can fill the shoes that I'm trying to fill and, if possible, make them a little bigger."
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Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3405.
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