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Thursday, December 22, 2011

49ers, Raiders Booting NFL Records

Posted By on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 11:59 AM

Bombs away...
  • Bombs away...

It warranted a mention, deep within local newspapers' sporting sections, that 49ers punter Andy Lee was named Special Teams Player of The Week. This is about as much mention as punters usually get. It's somewhat akin to being named outstanding McDonald's manager for your sub-region. There's only so much notice one's excellence can attract in some positions.

That's a shame -- about the punters, at least. Because Lee and the Oakland Raiders' Shane Lechler are performing at a statistical level exceeding any other players in NFL history. But it's not just them -- even a quick glance at the data reveals that the entire league is punting far, far farther than it did even a decade ago.

Football is a complicated and nuanced game. The "Yards Per Punt" category is not. And yet the statistics don't lie -- this year's 15th-best punter would have been the league leader in 2002.

Here's how that breaks down:

2000: League-wide yards-per-punt -- 41.9

2001: 42.1

2002: 41.3

2003: 41.3

2004: 42.0

2005: 42.5

2006: 43.4

2007: 43.4

2008: 43.9

2009: 44.1

2010: 43.4

2011: 45.1

With 14 of the season's 16 games on the books, Lechler is averaging 50.5 yards per punt with Lee just behind at 50.4. These are historical numbers; Lechler and Lee are the McGwire and Sosa of their day -- participating in a far more low-profile contest and without the painfully obvious trappings of performance-enhancing drugs that were so readily apparent in retrospect.

Meanwhile, of the top 10 yard-per-punt career leaders, eight of them are currently suiting up in the NFL. The old-timers: Glenn Dobbs, who retired in 1949; and Sammy Baugh, who hung up his (high-topped) cleats in 1952. What amazing outliers they must have been.

That brings us to another major point. Ray Guy, often spoken of as history's greatest punter -- and the measuring stick for excellence in the position -- ranks only 75th on the career yards-per-punt list, trailing just about every active punter.

Clearly there are elements of greatness beyond yard-per-punt statistics -- Guy, for one, was famed for his hang time -- but it also is worth noting that the league average was far lower when Guy was booting 'em for the Raiders. In his fourth season, 1977, the league managed a meager 38.9 yards per punt; two years later that had only risen to 39.8 yards. In those years, Guy managed 43.3 and 42.6 yards per punt -- far superior to his peers.

Of course, as noted above, there's more to punting than just kicking the damn ball as far as  you can (most of the time). Lee's game vs. Pittsburgh stood out not just because of his mileage, but where he placed his punts -- consistently pinning the Steelers in the shadow of their own goalposts.

Most of the punting strategies observable for the average fan in past decades deal with kicks' placement -- not mere distance. So, really, it boggles the mind why the league average should rise so dramatically after years of essential stasis. Are a better class of athletes being attracted to the job (Lee, for his part, was a star baseball player)? Are a better class of coaches around? Is advanced weight training having an effect? Have heretofore undiscovered methods of kicking a ball come to light? Are potential star punters spotted earlier in life and molded from a younger age? Is it the ball? Are all of the kids on dope? Your guess is as good as mine.

In a sign of disrespect for the position, no punter has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame. Guy's contemporaries vouch for his worthiness. Fair enough. But Lee and Lechler are dominating athletes who are, statistically, far superior to those of Guy's day.

Perhaps Guy's day at the Hall will come after Lee and Lechler kick down that door for him.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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