Paul Ernster’s season began under the shroud of an unknown future — unknown, at least, beyond the first four games of the regular season in which he was penciled to fill in for suspended punter Todd Sauerbrun.
It ended with Ernster finishing 22nd in the league in net punting average and 28th in gross average … but also with a higher single-season touchback percentage on kickoffs than any Bronco since kickoffs were moved back to the 30-yard-line in 1993.
That was the most promising statistic for Ernster in what amounted to his first full NFL season after a one-game-and-to-the-practice-squad-and-then-on-to-injured-reserve oddity of a month that was September 2005. That month commenced with a place on the 53-man roster and ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his kicking leg.
It might have been worse had it been his plant leg.
“It really would have caused me a lot of trouble, but with the right leg, you’re really just snapping it through,” the right-footer said.
Ernster recovered, of course, and then went through a season that took an unusual trajectory — first with Sauerbrun’s suspension giving him an opportunity, then earning the job after dropping three of four punts inside the Baltimore 20-yard-line on Monday Night Football and eventually garnering the Sunday Night Football spotlight in Week 13 after meandering onto the field without his helmet.
“I’ve never been that big of a bonehead before, especially in front of such a large audience,” he said afterwards.
“When I ran off the field, (Head) Coach (Mike) Shanahan looked at me (as if to say), ‘What’s wrong with you, man? What are you doing?’ I felt like an idiot.”
That night, though, he had one of his better games of the year, notching a net punting average of 38.7 yards, his fourth-best of the year. More games like that might make Ernster a happy idiot — and could make the Broncos’ special teams a tad more stable after going through three punters in the season and a half before Ernster got the job.
FINAL ANALYSIS: This was just Ernster’s second full season as a punter; he didn’t take up full-time punting duties until his senior year at Northern Arizona University … Opponents averaged 6.9 yards per return of Ernster’s punts; that figure ranked fifth in the NFL and third in the AFC behind Cincinnati’s Kyle Larson and Pittsburgh’s Chris Gardocki … Ernster’s gross average of 41.7 yards and his net of 36.6 yards were 2.1 and 1.4 yards lower, respectively, than Sauerbrun’s averages in 2005. But Ernster’s ’06 net was 5.9 yards beyond Sauerbrun’s net average during his two regular-season games with the New England Patriots late this past campaign.
NEXT: Safety Nick Ferguson.