Some pro fans may even believe the only time a team can punt is on fourth down. This, circumstantial evidence to the contrary, is not true. A team may punt after a safety or a fair catch or even in the middle of a kickoff return. The absence of the quick kick—punting from a "short-punt" formation on third down (or second or first, for that matter)—is one of the mysteries of the pro playbook. Not only does quick-kicking enable the punting team to catch the defenders without a deep safety, but it also makes it virtually certain the ball will have a chance to roll. Very long quick kicks are common in college. Against Alabama this year, Georgia Tech Quarterback Mike Kelley unleashed an 80-yarder. My freshman year in college, Northwestern upset the University of Miami—ranked first in the nation in some preseason polls—by quick-kicking several times, punting for an average of over 60 yards.
Chicago Bears General Manager Jim Finks says the pros have stopped using the quick kick because "they hate to give up the ball," even for one down deep in their own territory. "The whole league is conservative," adds New York Jets special teams Coach Joe Gardi. "And yes, sometimes it ticks me off. For instance, I guarantee that fake punts will work five out of 10 times, as will on-sides kicks." Gardi says that the Jets would be a logical team to use the quick kick because Quarterback Richard Todd is a fine punter. Dallas, which employs the shotgun offense, is another obvious choice, as are the Bears, who could have Walter Payton quick-kick off fake sweeps. The versatile Payton averaged 39.0 yards per punt at Jackson State.
"If punting could be taught, every athlete could punt," columnist Bill Gleason of the
wrote recently. "Punting seems to be a mysterious gift bestowed at birth on a few male children." Most people believe this, and perhaps it is true. Doc Storey asked B. J. Underwood, Oakland Raider Punter Ray Guy's college coach at Southern Mississippi, how he'd taught Guy to put such tremendous force into the ball. "I didn't teach him a damn thing," Underwood said. "He came here like that."
In earlier years, before platooning and specialization came to football, it was often the best athlete who kicked for his team. Sid Luckman, Ace Parker and Sammy Baugh all punted for their pro clubs. More recently, the likes of Houston Quarterback Dan Pastorini, Cardinal Tight End Jackie Smith, Miami Running Back Larry Seiple and Dallas backup Quarterback Danny White have been their teams' regular punter at one time or another. Jerrel Wilson, the former Kansas City Chiefs punter, began his career as a running back. Punter Bob Parsons of the Bears is a substitute tight end. Guy was an outstanding defensive back in college with 18 career interceptions.
However, with more and more punters taking up their specialty as early as junior high, average athletes who have, in fact, "learned" their skill are making their mark. An example is Bobby Grupp, who tried out for the Jets two years ago but was cut for being "too slow and mechanical." After spending time working with Ray Pelfrey, a sort of West Coast Doc Storey who conducts kicking camps in California and Washington, Grupp improved enough to be signed by the Chiefs this season, and he currently leads the NFL in punting with a 45.3-yard average.
Just as there is no play during which an offensive team cannot punt, there is also no time when it must punt. In general, a team's number of punts is inversely related to the strength of its offense. In 1969 I kicked 77 times for Northwestern because, I must confess, we had a terrible attack. Punting for a team with powerhouse offense is almost like not punting at all. In 1973 Greg Gantt averaged an amazing 48.7 yards per kick for Alabama but missed a chance at the NCAA national title because he only punted 25 times, 10 fewer than were needed to qualify.
In general, college punting averages are rising. Though the NCAA record is still the 48.1 set by Marv Bateman of Utah in 1971, Jim Miller of Mississippi came fairly close to that in 1977 with a 45.9-yard average, best in the colleges that year. Last season Miller dropped to sixth in the national standings, finishing behind, among others, leader Maury Buford of Texas Tech (44.1 yds.), and Rick Partridge of Utah (43.9) and Russell Erxleben of Texas (43.4), both of whom are now in the NFL, where an average punt travels 40 yards.
The NFL record for the longest yardage punt belongs to Steve O'Neal, D.D.S., a former Jet, who hammered a 98-yarder—from the one to the one—against Denver in 1969. O'Neal's mark can be tied but not broken. Because the line of scrimmage can never be less than the one—at least for statistical purposes—and because any punted ball that crosses the goal line at the other end automatically comes out to the 20, a kick of 99 net yards is not possible.
Punters can do anything with the ball once they receive it. Unfortunately, these days they are seldom asked to do anything but kick it. In the past, punters like Notre Dame's George Gipp and USC's Frank Gifford kept defenses guessing on fourth down by running with, drop-kicking or passing the ball on occasion. (In a punting situation Gipp once faked a run and then drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal.) One of the last of that breed was Halfback-Punter John Isenbarger, who played for Indiana in the late '60s. Nicknamed Punt John Punt, Isenbarger admitted he had no idea what he was going to do with the ball once he lined up in punt formation.
Pro coaches, who are not a particularly daring bunch, point out the dangers of fooling around in such "critical" situations. Look what happened to that Erxleben boy this year, they say. What happened to Erxleben, who, besides Ray Guy, is the only NFL punter to have been drafted in the first round, was that after a bad snap in a Saints-Falcons game he tried a two-handed pass that was intercepted by an Atlanta player, who ran it back for what proved to be the winning touchdown.