The punt was perfect, bouncing at the Oakland 3 and, right before it got into the end zone, was grabbed by a leaping Trent Sherfield and thrown back to Chase Edmonds to down at the 2.
Punter Andy Lee leaped in the air, high-stepping toward the sideline to deliver a high-five to special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers.
“I’ll be honest, that was the most excited I’ve been in a long time,” Lee said. “Normally, I’m just ‘Good job,’ whatever. I don’t know. It was the most excited maybe I’ve ever been.”
It was a crucial time in the game, a play that at the time looked like it would seal a Cardinals’ win. It did not. But it underscored just what a weapon Lee has been all year in a mostly forgettable season.
Lee leads the NFL in punting, at 48.8 yards per kick, and is fourth in the league in net yard average at 42.0. He’s doing it at age 36, in his 15th season – having come in to the league with fellow University of Pittsburgh product Larry Fitzgerald – for a team that desperately needed stability at the spot when he arrived just before the 2017 regular season began.
Lee was a three-time Pro Bowler when he played the bulk of his career with the 49ers. His statistics this season compare to his best San Francisco years, and he set a Cardinals franchise record with his 47.3-yard punting average last season.
“I can personally attest to the fact I think Andy is better now than when I was with him in San Francisco,” said kicker Phil Dawson, in his second stint as a Lee teammate. “He was already a three-time Pro Bowler then. The guys who hang out at this position for a long time, I think they get better.”
Lee bounced around more than he would have liked to get to Arizona. After his stellar 11 seasons with the Niners – including at one point signing a six-year, $20.4 million deal to make him the highest-paid punter in the league -- San Francisco spent a draft pick on punter Bradley Pinion. Lee was traded to Cleveland before the 2015 season.
He was dealt to Carolina before the 2016 season, playing only nine games before a groin injury led the Panthers to look for a younger, cheaper option. He was cut at the end of the 2017 preseason, and the Cardinals – who had been searching for a solid punter since Dave Zastudil left following the 2013 season and were using Matt Wile and Richie Leone in a training camp battle – grabbed him.
“I don’t necessarily think there was doubt (in myself), but I try to take things year by year,” Lee said. “I can still do it. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but hopefully it will last until I feel I’m done and not it doesn’t make me done.”
The Cardinals, with all their struggles on offense, have needed him. His 60 punts are second only to Cleveland’s Dustin Colquitt.
“We don’t want to punt the football, but when he does, he’s done a great job and he’s been consistent all year,” coach Steve Wilks said.
Unlike Fitzgerald, Lee hasn’t looked at retirement as an option. While he realizes it may not be in his control – Lee signed a contract extension through 2019 this past offseason – that’s why his excellent season is important to him.
The Cardinals also get some benefit with having a guy with so much experience, especially when it comes to crucial situations like the Oakland punt.
“It really helps with perspective,” said Dawson, in his 20th season. “Kicking and punting is kind of the last frontier of football. It’s so misunderstood. There is no one in the building that can really help you if things start going sideways.”
Lee still isn’t sure why he reacted the way he did against the key Raiders punt. He figures there were many factors – the struggles of the team, the big moment, the tight game – but it’s unlike him. At a position so technically based, with so many mechanics involved, emotions usually don’t help.
Maybe this time, it also served as a reminder he is still a valuable weapon.
“The way I look at it, every season is my job interview for next year,” Lee said. “I want to keep playing. I’m not done.”
For Thanksgiving practice, wide receiver Chad Williams (ankle), tackle D.J. Humphries (knee), linebacker Deone Bucannon (chest) and safety Rudy Ford (heel) did not work. Kicker Phil Dawson (hip), safety Budda Baker (knee), tight end John Phillips (knee), linebacker Josh Bynes (wrist/hip), defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (calf), defensive tackle Corey Peters (heel) and defensive tackle Olsen Pierre (ankle) were limited.
For the Chargers, defensive tackle Corey Liuget (knee) was placed on injured reserve, while running back Melvin Golden (hamstring/knee) and wide receiver Tyrell Williams (quadriceps) were limited. Nose tackle Brandon Mebane didn’t practice for non-injury reasons. …
The team re-signed defensive end Vontarrius Dora to the practice squad Thursday.
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders from Sunday's matchup with the Raiders