Landeta not ready to kick NFL habit

July 13, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

It's a gorgeous, warm day at Towson University, and the sky over Johnny Unitas Stadium is filled with footballs consistently spiraling over 40, 50 and sometimes 60 yards. There seems to be enough hang time to sign a few autographs in between each punt.

"I wish I could change the age on my birth certificate from 44 to 24," punter Sean Landeta said. "If I could, I would have a four-year contract because it would be based on my numbers, not my age."

Instead, Landeta is unemployed and waiting for the phone to ring. At an age when most non-sports professionals are at their peak, Landeta is an old-timer. The average career of an NFL player is about three to four years.

Landeta has no complaints because he has played for five teams in a 21-year career. But he is still one of the league's best punters. In five games with the Philadelphia Eagles at the end of last season, Landeta averaged 43.6 yards per punt with a net of 38.2.

Landeta's average in 2005 was close to his career average of 43.3, and his net was his best ever, including Pro Bowl seasons in 1986 and 1990. In another profession, Landeta could file an age discrimination suit. In the NFL, he's just another old guy.

Despite all of its success stories about players overcoming overwhelming odds, the NFL is built on prototypes. You've got to fit certain requirements for certain positions, and age is the constant factor. In the NFL, the golden years begin at 30.

Just ask Landeta.

Why else isn't he playing? You could see age playing a factor if he were a running back, offensive or defensive lineman or wide receiver. But he's a punter. He just kicks the ball, far and high.

"If this is what I'm supposed to feel like when I'm 44, then it's a good thing," said Landeta, who starred at Loch Raven High and later at Towson University, where he and I were teammates. "I'm pretty much doing physically what I did when I was 25. Five or six days a week, in some capacity, I work on my game. I still have people out to check my hang time and chart my punts. I'm still hitting the ball very well, and if I didn't, I wouldn't want to play.

"The hunger is still there, and if it wasn't, then it also would be time to move on. I would still be playing if they based a contract on performance numbers instead of another number, your age. Just six months ago, I was performing at a very high level, it wasn't like I had been sitting out a couple of years, or didn't play well."

Actually, Landeta looks in better shape now than he did when he left Towson for the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League in 1983. Back then, Landeta was pudgy; the result of some poor eating habits. The fat is gone from around his waist, and he looks lean even though a few St. Louis Rams teammates jokingly referred to him as "Coach" two years ago.

It's understandable why some NFL teams don't want Landeta, but he would be a perfect fit for a veteran team looking to make a serious playoff run.

Are the Ravens listening?

He has more punts in NFL history than anyone but Jeff Feagles of the New York Giants. Landeta won two championships with the Stars and two Super Bowl rings with the Giants. If he can punt at Giants Stadium in New York, he can be successful anywhere. Landeta has lasted longer than some of the game's best, such as Ray Guy.

The will to succeed is there. You can tell by the way Landeta talks. Punting isn't a job, it's a science. He can tell you about how a shift in foot position of 2 inches can cost you 20 yards. Or how a tight spiral is tougher for a returner to handle because it descends quickly. He'll tell you about which stadiums are the most difficult to kick in, and why Deion Sanders can make it a long Sunday afternoon.

"I never thought I would have this type of career," Landeta said. "At first, you just want to make it, and then it's, God, if I can play for five years, that would be great. Then it's if I can get to 10, I'll sign a paper right here that I'll retire if I get to 10. Now, I'm almost at 25."

It's been a great ride. He estimates his chances at about 50-50 that he'll get picked up before the season is over. It will come down to job performance by some of his peers as well as injuries. His networking is in place because Landeta has played for some of the league's best coaches in Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Mike Holmgren. But in the NFL, it's out with the old, and in with the young.

If he doesn't get another shot, Landeta won't be bitter. He beat the odds, a long shot coming out of Towson, which has produced only two other NFL players, running backs Dave Meggett and Tony Vinson.

"Every season after 10 has become so precious. Every team only keeps one punter," Landeta said. "I know this is all about perception, and teams are going to go with the younger players. But if you sit down and look over my numbers for the last 24 years, the numbers at the beginning are very consistent with what they have been throughout my career. Teams know I can still punt, and they also know I'll be ready if the opportunity comes around. Actually, the way I feel, I think I can still do this for another four or five years." mike.preston@baltsun.com

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