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A Booting Boom
Statistics suggest that this is the golden age of NFL punting. During the first 12 weeks of the season, the average punt went 44.3 yards, a half yard farther than the record set last year. Punters were on pace to drop 868 balls inside their opponents' 20-yard lines, 103 more than the league mark set in 2007. And the Raiders' Shane Lechler was on course to equal or break the season record of 51.40 yards per punt set 69 years ago by Sammy Baugh. Yet among fans, the punter may be the least appreciated man in the game. Even when he does his job well, placing the ball as close as possible to the opponent's goal line, he exits the field to tepid applause. More often than not, when he faces scrutiny, it is unwelcome, coming after a fumbled snap or a badly kicked ball that lands out-of-bounds just yards past the line of scrimmage. Once, after a game the Seahawks nearly lost because he shanked a punt, rookie Donnie Jones ran off the field to so many boos from the home crowd that he wanted to hide—or, better yet, vanish. "I could hear people yelling, 'Get a day job! You should be behind a desk!'" says Jones. The experience left him so devastated that he stayed in bed for 20 hours afterward.
But punters' recent successes, rather than their disappointments, should be examined before somebody at a year-end banquet hands a punter a trophy engraved with MOST VALUABLE PLAYER. Punters (yes, punters!) have become what coaches call difference makers, and the difference they're making has observers of the game wondering if the punter is a defensive weapon every bit the equal of a shutdown cover corner or a run-stuffing middle linebacker.
The Chargers' Mike Scifres dominated a playoff game against the Colts last January with six kicks that pinned Peyton Manning and his offense inside their 20-yard line. Scifres's performance, which led the Chargers to a 23--17 overtime win, rated among the most memorable put up by any player in the 2008 season. And this season, on Oct. 11, the Browns' Dave Zastudil was so brilliant against the Bills that the eight-year veteran practically won the game by himself (diagram, opposite). He punted nine times; seven of the boots forced the Bills to start from inside their 20, and three of those put them inside their five. The Bills have a fine return man in Roscoe Parrish, but Zastudil and the Browns' cover team limited him to seven yards. Zastudil's last punt traveled 57 yards to Buffalo's 16, where Parrish fumbled the ball, setting up the Browns' game-winning field goal seven plays later with 26 seconds left on the clock.
ZASTUDIL BEATS BILLS 6--3, the headlines should've read. But none did. For some reason that needs to be fixed, headline writers never think to immortalize punters. And how do you pronounce Zastudil, anyway? Is it zas-TOO-dull or zas-too-DILL? You never struggled with the pronunciation of Manning or Brady, did you? It's zas-too-DILL, and we should all be ashamed for not knowing.
Getting a Leg Up
Ray Guy, whose name was never mispronounced except by an occasional Frenchman, might have been the greatest punter ever. One day in 1977, at the Pro Bowl in the Louisiana Superdome, he kicked a ball so high that it struck the gondola holding a collection of video screens 90 feet above the field. A punter had never done that before. Guy was tall, skinny and long-limbed. He was so limber that he could pull his feet back behind his head from a sitting position. "Looked like a human pretzel" is how Guy describes the effect. Guy punted for the Raiders from 1973 through '86, and his kicking leg occasionally came up and punched him in the face mask. That blow was often the hardest one he took in a game. "Like to knock myself out," Guy says. "I'd walk around dazed afterward."
Today, Guy, who will turn 60 on Dec. 22, is still tall, skinny and long-limbed, but he has back problems that restrict his flexibility and keep his feet on the ground. He lives in Hattiesburg, Miss., and he works as a fund-raiser and special projects manager at Southern Mississippi, his alma mater. Guy's favorite watering hole is a place down near where the main drag intersects the interstate, and he was sitting in the establishment's courtyard one day talking about punting. He kept piling the stories one on top of the other. He seemed in high spirits until the subject of the Pro Football Hall of Fame came up. Guy still has not made it to Canton.
"I'd love to be the first pure punter voted in," he says, "but as the years have passed and I've been close so many times, I guess it's gotten me to think more about the position in general than myself in particular. You hear people make these statements about punters—that they're not really part of the team, that they're not real athletes. It's frustrating, but I'm not sure it's something that makes me furious. Well, O.K., sometimes it makes me furious."
The snubbing of Guy is yet more proof that for too long the position has not been given its due. Despite the punter's demonstrated strategic importance, he is often pegged as a pasty, emotionally challenged team pariah who stands by himself at the end of the bench with his arms crossed and his socks drooping to his ankles. In the 2009 draft a punter wasn't taken until the fifth round, when Kevin Huber of Cincinnati was chosen by his hometown Bengals with the 142nd pick. The next punter to go, Thomas Morstead of SMU, was selected by the Saints in the same round 22 spots later. New Orleans had to trade two picks to move up to get Morstead, and the decision was met by such an outcry from fans that coach Sean Payton was asked to explain the choice in a postdraft press conference.