The NFL has long downplayed the importance of punting. Maybe that’s because a punt is an admission of failure of the offense or because monster punts don’t often make highlight reels.
Yet punting is important enough that teams haven’t stopped doing it. A 1992 game between the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills was the first game without a punt in NFL history. If there were others, good luck finding that information.
While punting may never be glamorous, if it weren’t for Ray Guy, there’s a chance we’d look back at punting as we do leather helmets. Guy changed the expectations of the position forever.
On Saturday, Guy will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the senior committee’s nominees. Guy was a finalist seven times from 1992 to 2008, but somehow the larger, 46-person selection committee always found players more deserving.
As you will see, if there were ever a punter deserving of induction, it’s Guy.
Guy Makes History
Thanks to the legendary owner of the Oakland Raiders, Guy made history before ever stepping on the field as a professional. With the 23rd selection of the 1973 NFL draft, Al Davis made Guy the first punter ever drafted in the first round.
Many people think kickers and punters are the least athletic players in the NFL, but that couldn’t be further from the truth with Guy. Not only did he handle the kicking and punting duties at Southern Mississippi, but he actually played safety and had 18 interceptions in three years.
Guy said via conference call that he actually had a hard time transitioning to just being a punter at the pro level.
When you’re doing so many things and contributing in so many areas, and then all of a sudden one of your life starts out where you’re only focusing on one thing, it’s tough to get it out of your system, because your body is so geared, your mind is geared to doing everything. That was probably one of the hardest things that I had to face the first couple years, is to get that mentality of being a starting safety and hitting people out of my mind and then focusing on one thing as being a punter.
Of course, where Guy really excelled was at punting. On 200 collegiate punts, Guy averaged 44.7 yards. That may seem pedestrian by today’s NFL standards, but it wasn’t 40 years ago, nor is it at the college level.
To put it in perspective, University of Memphis punter Tom Hornsey averaged 43.15 yards per punt on 297 punts in his four-year career and won the award named after Guy in 2013. New England Patriots punter Ryan Allen won the award in 2012 and 2011 and averaged 44.9 yards per punt on 188 punts at Louisiana Tech.
The only other two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award is Daniel Sepulveda, who averaged 45.2 yards per punt on 277 college punts from 2003-2006. Guy’s stats still hold up against the best college punters of the current era. Try comparing college quarterbacks today to those 40 years ago, and it’s obviously one-sided.
The Revolutionary Guy
At first, even the coaching staff was a bit skeptical about drafting a punter in the first round. The Raiders were coming of a 10-3-1 season and legit contenders to win the Super Bowl at the time, so they weren’t in a position to be wasting draft picks.
"I thought: We drafted a punter?" recalled former assistant coach Tom Flores via Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports. "Then when I saw him kick, it was like, 'Holy cow!' I was amazed at how perfect it was when you saw it come off his foot. It just took off."
The truth is that Guy revolutionized punting. Before Guy, coaching punting was an afterthought. There were no punting coaches or kicking clinics for the aspiring punter. Guy learned how to punt on his own for the most part. All the nuances of punting that most people never care to learn he learned through experimentation.
The now-former NFL punter Chris Kluwe wrote a scathing critique on Deadspin.com of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee members in 2012 for not acknowledging Guy’s career accomplishments or caring to learn the subtleties of punting.
This is a player who brought the concept of hangtime to the NFL, a stat that today's special teams coaches absolutely cannot do without. This is a player who pinned opposing offenses back inside their 20-yard line instead of simply booting a touchback, winning the battle of field position before anyone realized there was even a fight. This is a player who revolutionized his corner of the sport just as much as the coaches and owners in the Hall of Fame changed theirs. And you're saying, in effect, that he's "just a kicker"?
Kluwe is not alone in idolizing Guy. Houston Texans punter Shane Lechler, who played for 13 years in Oakland and owns a 47.6 career punting average, essentially credits Guy for what punting has become.
“Ray put the punting position out there with importance behind it,” said Lechler via Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “Before his time, it was just another job for somebody to do. Once Ray came in and changed the field position and the whole ‘hidden yardage’ part of the football game became important, and he was the reason for that.”
Guy would try to get hang time to give his team a chance to cover the kick, and he would try to pin the opposing team inside the 20 when he could. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Guy had 209 kicks inside the 20 from 1976-1986, but there is no data from 1973-1975.
Guy never had a punt returned for a touchdown, and just three of his 1,049 career punts were blocked. The hidden part of the game that Guy was able to exploit helped the Raiders win three Super Bowls during his time with the team.
Not Just a Guy
Of course, it’s hard for some to give Guy any credit for those Super Bowl wins because the Raiders were stacked with talent at the time, but he also dominated statistically against his peers. During his career, Guy’s statistics were also unmatched.
K.C. Joyner, a contributor the The New York Times' Fifth Down Blog, laid out the statistical case for Guy over five years ago. For starters, he led the league in net punting average in both 1974 and 1975 by wide margins. You could add 13 touchbacks in 1974 and eight in 1975, per Joyner, and he would still have led the league in net punting.
|Guy 1976-1986 versus His Peers (Minimum 5 Years)|
|Split||Net Average||Inside 20 %||Return %|
|Split||Total Punts||Total Inside 20||Total Returned|
|Players Ranked Higher Combined||979||250||275|
|The New York Times|
In net average, only three punters that directly competed with Guy for five seasons were better, but all of them had far fewer punts. On percentage of punts inside the 20, only two punters finished higher, but Guy had nearly as many total punts as they did combined. On percentage of punts returned, Guy finished third, but with more total punts than the men in front of him combined.
Guy did it better than anyone else for longer than anyone else, and it still took nearly 30 years for him to finally be immortalized in Canton, Ohio. Induction is an honor that has been a long time coming, and there’s little doubt that he deserved it.
A Decorated Guy
Everyone knew that Guy was special right away, as he was a Pro Football Writers of America All-Pro his rookie year in 1973. Guy ended up being a PFWA All-Pro for the first six years of his career. Guy earned Associated Press All-Pro honors from 1976-1978.
Guy also made the Pro Bowl seven times and won three NFL punting titles. For the better part of a decade, Guy was the undisputed best punter in the game. Teams started looking for guys like Guy in hopes of replicating his success.
Despite it taking far too long for Guy’s induction into the Hall of Fame, he has earned recognition many other times. Guy was selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, the All-Time NFL Team in 2000, the AFL-NFL 1960-1984 All-Star Team, the Super Bowl Silver Anniversary Team and the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A Hall of Fame Guy
Guy was a finalist for the Hall of Fame seven times from 1992-2008, but the selection committee kept passing him over for other candidates. Guy told Yahoo! Sports in 2012 that he stopped anticipating the call.
That all changed in 2014 when Guy was nominated by the senior committee. With few exceptions, senior committee nominations are usually confirmed by the larger voting group and inducted.
Just as Guy paved the way for a new breed of NFL punters, his election may give the selection committee the confidence to consider other specialists in the future. Punters like Lechler and Andy Lee of the 49ers may deserve induction one day, and what player wouldn’t want to be bestowed with football's highest honor?
Perhaps Guy’s induction will open the door for a change in how players are selected, and specialists will start to be recognized for their contributions to the game, as their teammates have been for decades.