The last two punters the New York Giants had, Steve Weatherford and Brad Wing, were what you might refer to as “big-personality” guys.
Weatherford was a beloved figure from the Giants’ last Super Bowl team. He was a character. A radio and TV personality. A fitness freak who graced magazine covers, something he still is today. An engaging man with a constant presence on social media. And this:
Wing was also a fun-loving young guy with an outgoing personality. Best friends with Odell Beckham Jr. A guy teammates said had some swag.
Riley Dixon, acquired in a trade from the Denver Broncos to replace Wing as the team’s punter, says that isn’t his style.
“I’m low-key,” Dixon said during a recent chat in the hallway leading to the Giants’ practice fields. “I’m here to do my job and that’s it. I’m going to do my job to the best of my ability and help this team win football games. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Dixon, though, does have a back story. And a following.
He was a high school quarterback at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse turned placekicker turned punter. He went unrecruited until he sent out his own highlight tape to colleges, eventually earning something called “preferred walk-on” status with the Syracuse Orange. He was eventually granted a scholarship, became one of the best punters in school history, and along the way became a cult hero and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Heisman Trophy candidate.
John Cassillo of SB Nation’s Syracuse website, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, explains the crush Orange fans had, and still have, on Dixon:
Dixon is a local kid who walked on at Syracuse, and ended up being one of the better punters we’ve had and quietly, he was among the more accurate in the NCAA. That certainly helped him earn fans among the Orange faithful, but his athleticism and ability to complete successful fakes is really what made him such a beloved player. It started with a game-winning touchdown throw vs. Villanova in 2014, then continued when he gained 42 yards on a fake punt against Notre Dame.
In 2015, he had three runs for 26 yards -- including a now-famous (among SU fans) hurdle of an LSU defender and resulting celebration that looked like a punch if you wanted it to.
The early exploits led to us starting a joking #DixonForHeisman campaign, which eventually got mention on ESPN and from our coach at the time, Scott Shafer as well. The fact that he got drafted after all of that really sealed the legend for good.
Here is that hurdle, and Dixon’s exuberant reaction. Easy to see why Syracuse fans enjoyed it. You will enjoy it, too.
Dixon also ran the ball four other times on fake punts during his time with the Orange. He gained 54 yards on his five rushing attempts.
Here is a compilation of his successful fakes on punts and field goals at Syracuse.
Trick plays with the Giants?
Dixon is 1-for-1 passing in his NFL career, having completed a pass for 16 yards and a first down to Cody Latimer during the 2016 season. With the two being teammates in New York now, are they pitching the pass play to special teams coach Thomas McGaughey?
“We’ll see,” Dixon said with a laugh. “We’ll see what he’s got planned.”
2017 season in review
Dixon’s charmed existence lasted through his 2016 rookie year with the Broncos. A seventh-round pick by Denver, he made the PFWA All-Rookie Team. His 41.3-yard net average was the best for a rookie punter in NFL history.
There was also this from 2016, via Broncos.com:
Dixon’s proficiency is not just a product of playing half his games at 5,280 feet above sea level. His 40.2-yard net average in road games would be the third-best all-time for a rookie, trailing only Bryan Anger (40.8 yards in 2012 for the Jaguars) and Sam Martin (40.4 in 2013 for the Lions).
Anger and Martin finished 4.3 and 3.3 percent above the league average as rookies, respectively. Dixon concluded his rookie season 2.7 percent above the league-wide net average, which ranks sixth of 75 rookie or first-year punters in the last 20 seasons.
In 2017, though, things didn’t appear to go as well for Dixon. His 45.6 yards per punt average was fine, just a tenth of a yard below 2016. His net average fell to 40.2, though, and he had two punts blocked.
SB Nation’s Mile High Report did an exhaustive — and pretty incredible — in-depth look at punting statistics for 2017. According to that study, Dixon was found lacking in almost every conceivable area in which a punter can be measured.
The 24-year-old punter protested, with a noticeable grimace, when the idea was broached that the stats on his 2017 season weren’t favorable.
“I actually thought I had a really good year last year. The tough thing with punting is numbers are all subjective,” Dixon said. “I’ll never be the first to tell you I did well. I’m always going to tell you I didn’t do good enough. Was there room for improvement? Absolutely, and there always will be.
“I always will be pushing myself to do better.”
The Broncos apparently agreed with Mile High Report’s unflattering assessment of Dixon, signing the flamboyant and big-legged Marquette King to replace him.
“It’s definitely a reality check. That’s the nature of this business. Nothing’s ever safe, and you never can get too comfortable and I never did get comfortable, I never did think I had a position on the team. I always pushed myself to be the best punter I could be,” Dixon said of his ouster from Denver. “Definitely was a surprise, but landed in a better place, so I’m happy to be here.”
The Giants, having released Wing after an awful year in which his net average was a league-worst 36.7 yards per punt, pounced. They acquired Dixon for the lowest of low sale prices, a conditional 2019 seventh-round pick.
Dixon couldn’t be more thrilled. After having spent two seasons in Colorado, he is back home. Or, almost as close to home as he could get as an NFL player with only the Buffalo Bills being closer to his Dixon’s Central New York birthplace of Oneida.
Asked what he missed most about this part of the country while he was with the Broncos, the 24-year-old said “To be honest with you, my family.”
“Being four hours from home it’s great to go home and be able to be part of their lives again,” Dixon said. “That’s huge for me.”
It also means that his mom, dad, sister, niece and nephew can watch him play without having to fly from Central New York to Colorado. He will also be closer to the fanatical Syracuse fans who were jubilant to have him back in this part of the country, though also incredulous that an NFL team had spurned their hero.
Dixon, in combination with the many experienced special teams players the Giants have added to their roster, should help upgrade the Giants’ punt game.
One area that might concern some is Dixon punting outdoors in the cold weather and swirling winds of MetLife Stadium. At Syracuse, Dixon spent games kicking in the Carrier Dome. In Denver, there is the altitude.
Dixon, though, is unconcerned.
“I kicked outside for five years in the blowing wind up on top of the hill there at Syracuse. Snow. Rain. I’ve been through it all,” he said, pointing out that until he was a senior the school did not have an indoor practice facility. “It’s like anything. It makes you the person you are, it makes you the athlete you are, and it made me the punter I am, growing up in things like that.”
Dixon, then, seems right at home as the Giants’ punter. Now, we just have to see about reprising that whole “cult hero” thing.