Phil Niekro. Tim Wakefield. R.A. Dickey.
And, coming out of the bullpen in 2016, Matt Darr?
Not for the Miami Marlins, of course. Darr is still a member of the crosstown Dolphins, and hopes to be for years to come.
But Miami’s second-year punter nonetheless might have the feel of a trick-pitch hurler this fall.
Darr, who has quietly become one of the Dolphins’ most dependable players, has been working on his knuckleball punt, and just might spring it on unsuspecting teams this fall.
“The advantage to the knuckleball is it’s a [pain] to catch for the returner,” Darr said. “It’s extremely hard for them, because it’s moving in the air as it’s coming down, so a lot of times they either let those go or they spit them up. We’ll see. It’s something to have in the arsenal and keep working on it.”
That’s the luxury of having an iron-clad grip on your job. You get to experiment.
And after winning a hard-fought roster spot from Brandon Fields last summer, Darr most certainly had a stress-free training camp.
The Dolphins brought in competition for kicker Andrew Franks and long snapper John Denney. But not so for Darr, who emerged as one of the league’s best young punters in 2015.
“I don’t think we’re looking to bring in just anybody,” coach Adam Gase explained. “We wanted to make sure that whoever we brought in, they were in a legitimate competition.”
Gase added: “Matt’s done a great job as far as — that responsibility, he has a lot on his plate. Holding seems like an easy thing to do but you think about how many times a game has been won or lost because of that spot. I feel like there’s a big-time confidence there with our special teams coach.”
As a rookie, Darr ranked third in the league in gross punting average (47.6 yards per) and eighth in punts pinned inside the 20 (30). The Pro Football Writers of America rewarded Darr with a spot on its all-rookie team.
He wasn’t perfect in directional kicks however; Darr’s 10 touchbacks led the league — in part because of his high number of attempts. Darr’s 92 punts were third-most in football, a function of Miami’s poor offense.
“I remember being midfield Week 1 against Washington and hitting a great ball when the line of scrimmage was the 50,” Darr said. “It was a great punt but it was a mistake on my part not to hit a flip-flop punt to down that inside the 20. The next time we were in the situation, I learned to pull out the flip-flop punt to try to get it in.”
He continued: “Sometimes if you hit a long punt, you’ll get a 55-yard gross punt, but if it’s a touchback, it’s 35-yard net. That doesn’t really help out the team as much as swallowing your own pride and taking it at the 12. The defense appreciates that.”
Darr, undrafted out of Tennessee, said his “whole goal” is to put his team in the best situation to succeed.
That’s why he’s one of several punters around the league kicking with an Australian-style technique.
“Basically you’re kind of dropping the ball to where you can’t drive it far,” Darr said. “You want to give it more hang time. And then it also gives you a high percentage of those that bounce straight up or back.”
Variety is important in any sport.
Even Phil Niekro threw an occasional fastball.