If they wanted to put a punter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame long before now, I have one for you.
Of course, they didn’t call Sammy Baugh “Slingin’ Sammy” because of his foot.
Baugh isn’t famously known as “Bootin’ Sammy.” I get it.
But Baugh, the Washington Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback/defensive back (he intercepted 31 passes) from 1937-51, did triple duty from 1939-47, functioning as the team’s punter as well. And his numbers booting the ball for the Skins are eye-popping.
Baugh’s career punting average was 45.1 yards per kick, and Sammy wasn’t kicking the harder, lighter, more tightly-sewn pigskin that is used in the more modern era. The footballs Baugh punted were sort of like kicking sacks of flour.
In 1940, Baugh punted 35 times to the tune of a 51.4 yard average.
In Baugh’s day, “hang time” referred to public executions. But the grainy film footage that still exists shows Baugh’s kicks weren’t just long, they were high and majestic.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its 2014 class over the weekend, and one of the new members is Ray Guy.
You could hear the snickers from Maine to California when the Oakland Raiders made Guy, from Southern Mississippi, their first round pick (23rd overall) in the 1973 draft.
To that point, no NFL team had selected a pure punter in the first round. In fact, punters weren’t picked in the second, third, or fourth rounds all that much, either.
There were a few reasons for this.
One, Guy came along at a time when NFL rosters began to expand, giving teams the luxury of having foot specialists of sorts on board. In the days of the 40-man roster, anyone who could rear a leg back and boot a ball doubled as punter. Quarterbacks punted. Linebackers punted. Defensive backs punted (as Lem Barney did for the Lions in his first two years in the league, and as Yale Lary did before Barney). Placekickers punted.
Two, the strategy of playing for field position was a foreign concept before Ray Guy started booming footballs into the sky.
Three, the concept of hang time was also mostly disregarded until teams saw that when Guy punted, the Raiders coverage team arrived at the same time as the ball did into the return man’s hands.
Guy’s leg, when fully extended after a boot, turned his body into the letter “E” with the top and bottom missing.
Guy punted, and the football would stay in the air forever. You could watch Guy catch the snap, and you could then go to the bathroom, and come out in time to see the return.
Around the time Guy entered the league, another term started cropping up. It was called the “coffin corner,” and it referred to punts that would be buried deep in the opponents’ zone, out of bounds, usually inside the ten yard line.
Guy was a master of the coffin corner kick as well.
But it was the hang time, those often five-plus seconds that the football was in the air, that made Guy a consistent Pro Bowl and All-Pro punter.
Guy punted. That’s all he did. He didn’t place kick. He didn’t hold. He wasn’t the Raiders’ backup quarterback.
But Guy was a weapon for the Raiders, and leave it to maverick owner Al Davis to envision how valuable a leg like Guy’s could be to his team’s well-being.
Guy changed field position to the Raiders’ advantage on a consistent basis. His punting wasn’t just long and high, it was precise and strategic. Guy was like the champion golfer who could back spin an approach shot onto the green from 175 yards out of the rough, over trees and in front of the bunkers, and have it land six feet from the pin.
With Guy as their punter, the Raiders weren’t playing football on a gridiron like the other teams; they were playing on a battlefield and Guy’s kicks were like grenades landing in the opponents’ soft underbelly.
But despite Guy’s success, no other NFL team could pull the trigger on drafting a punter in the first round.
But again, here’s where Guy’s influence comes into play.
Thanks to Guy, the Godfather of Punting, the game of football from head to, um, toe, began grooming punting specialists, starting at the high school level. The result was that the lot of pure punters increased exponentially, so there wasn’t as much urgency to grab a punter in the early rounds of the draft.
At the 1973 draft, Raiders owner Davis had a decision to make.
Guy was available, but so was a brute of a guard out of Michigan State named Joe DeLamielleure. And though the Raiders prided themselves on many things, a stellar offensive line was high on the list.
DeLamielleure would go on to a Hall of Fame career, but even he acknowledged that Davis made the right choice in selecting Guy over the guard from MSU.
“Mr. Davis, you are a smart man,” DeLamielleure said he told Davis in 1976 at the Pro Bowl in New Orleans. “I’ve never seen a right guard win a game, but I’ve seen Ray Guy win them. You made the right choice.”
When news broke early this year that Guy would be part of the Hall’s Class of 2014, a couple members of his football fraternity got an idea.
Former NFL punters Greg Coleman and Bryan Barker burned up the phone lines, inviting as many fellow punters as they could to induction weekend at Canton, Ohio.
The result was a gathering of 18 punters whose careers spanned nearly five decades.
“He put us on the map,” Coleman said of Guy. “There weren’t too many punters who had a five-second hang time in the league.”
Because of Guy, the TV networks started superimposing hang times on the screen on Sundays. Punters started being graded on how many seconds the football was in the air and where the ball landed, in addition to sheer length of kick.
It’s not bluster to say that Ray Guy, in his way, changed the game of football.
Fittingly, he has three Super Bowl rings for his work, to boot (sorry).
It was Guy’s first pro coach, John Madden, who perhaps summed it up best, from the Raiders perspective. He spoke of Guy before the enshrinement on Saturday.
“When we got Ray Guy, fourth down wasn’t as bad as it used to be.”