Monday, April 29, 2019

The NFL's Best-ever Kick and Punt Blockers

OPINION
By John Turney
In the early 1990s, when we were doing sack research we had a conversation with longtime Raider executive Al LoCasale about official statistics and unofficial statistics. Of course, sacks came up and other statistics. We asked if punt blocks were official. He smiled and said, "semi-official".

Okay, whatever that means. To us, official or not, they are interesting. Although we have not checked we think blocked kicks are now official but still, they are only interesting if the players now are compared with past greats. So, we decided to do another list.

As with the return men where we combined kick- and punt-returners on one list, we are combining the kick blocks and punt blockers. Sure, we could have a separate list for each and then a combined just like we could have had a kick returner, punt returner, and a dual returner list, but for our purposes, we want to capture who the best of the best were and combining the lists made sense.

Pro Football Researcher Association member and Pro Football Journal contributor Nick Webster made this list possible. His amazing work brought light players many fans had not heard of or didn't know were great blockers. Also, he clarified some inconsistencies in the kick blocking stat as well.

This is how we rank them based on Webster's research and our own evaluation of the quality of the blocks and the ole' 'eye test'. For a quick reference number one through number eight we'd consider the 'elite'. Numbers nine through maybe  #25 we would consider 'excellent'. After #25 through the end of the list, we'd say they are very good to good.

The List:
1. Ted Hendricks—He blocked both kicks and punts with remarkable frequency. Blocking punts is rarer (more difficult) than kicks and due to that we put Kick ‘Em in the Head Ted’ at the top of our list. He blocked ten punts (second best ever) and 14 placekicks (he shared one with Bubba Smith) and in 1974 had seven combined blocks to lead the NFL and set what Webster thinks is the record for most in a season.

Once he blocked a punt but was called offsides and the extra yards put the opponents into field goal position. So, Hendricks went ahead and blocked the field goal for good measure.

He even had a punt deflection that went 1-yard beyond the line of scrimmage but those do not count though for all intents and purposed they are the same. So because he was a threat on both placekicks and punts we put "The Stork" number one on our list.

2. Alan Page—Mostly an interior rusher on place kicks, but did block a punt, he has the highest total in NFL history with 25 according to Webster. The 28 number that is often tossed is close, but closer inspection shows that included some post-season games. Regardless, Page was always a threat, especially late in his career. He topped the NFL in 1976 and 1978.

3. Dave Whitsell—Best edge rusher on placekicks ever with at least 21 career blocked FG and PAT. We say 'at least' because while Webster uncovered most of those, Whitsell possibly had one or two in 1958-59 where the Detroit Lions records are spotty. Unofficially, Whitsell led the NFL in blocked kicks three times.

In the full games, PFJ has seen he didn't have any, but that covers only about six games. However, the great thing about looking at gamebooks and film is that a player like Whitsell can get his just due. Without Webster's work, that wouldn't be possible.

4. Ron McDole—The ‘Dancing Bear’ had 21 career kicks blocked. He was the best athlete around (290 pounds or so, heavy for a defensive end in that era) he got it done the Avis way—by trying harder. He said that offensive linemen often looked at FGs and PATs as “break time” and he’d simply outhustle them to get by and block or deflect a kick.

5. Matt Blair—A big-time leaper, he had 20 career blocks. Most, however, were PATs. While that can be important in a close game and can kill momentum, it isn't quite what a blocked field goal can be. Twice he led the NFL in blocks 1977 and 1981.

Blair's style was to rush the middle of the line a jump like a basketball player and get his hands on a kick.  Bleacher Report stated it this way, "It’s a skill he likened to going for a slam dunk. “You take a running start, you leap, and you make it happen".”

Blair is the second Viking in the top five. And when you add it Carl Eller (tied for 28th) it's pretty impressive.

6. Albert Lewis—And edge rusher whose forte was blocking punts—He has the most-ever with eleven. He also deflected a handful of others and even tackled a punter, which is almost the same as a block. He led the NFL in 1990 with four blocks (all punts) and was second in 1986 (all punts). However, in 1986 he had one deflection that dribbled past the line of scrimmage (not technically a block) and had a huge one in the playoffs against the Steelers.

Since blocked punts can happen in the opponent's territory blocked punts can have a more damaging effect than even a field goal block. A good number of blocked punts are returned for scores or can be a safety. At the very least they can pick up 40-50 extra yards.

Three of his eleven regular season punt blocks were returned for touchdowns plus one more in the playoffs.

7. Irv Cross—Cross blocked nine place kicks with Eagles and seven with the Rams (an NFL-leading four in 1966 alone). An edge rusher who 'got there' as often as anyone in history. Like Albert Lewis, he had some length (height and long arms) that helped close the final inches that were the difference in a blocked kick and a good field goal.

Was a very good corner, too. One of the best-ever at 'axing', which is roll blocking a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage to take him out of the pattern.

8. Shaun Rogers—Seventeen placekicks blocked. Not a leaper, Rodgers used his bulk to push the interior blockers back and then got his hands up quickly—the ultimate inside power rusher. He tied for the NFL lead three times with a career-high in three in 2004.

9. Julius Peppers—Twelve field goals and one PAT blocked for a total of 13 blocks. In this era when eighty percent of field goals are good, the twelve blocks matter a lot. Say in the 1950s, there was a fifty percent chance that the field goal was going to be no good anyway, depending on the length. Now, that is not true, making Rodgers and Peppers a top commodity in the 2000s.

Here is how the Chicago Tribune reported Peppers' skill, "In essence, Peppers has taken 25 (37 through the end of his career) points off the board (eight blocked field goal attempts, one blocked extra point attempt) in his career. "In terms of defensive ends, he's the best at it," said Lions special teams coach Danny Crossman, who previously coached him on the Panthers' special teams. "He'll get you a couple every year. You can write it down."

What makes Peppers so effective? Well, he's 6 foot 6. His arms are long enough to clean gutters without needing a ladder (34 inches). And he has hops (36 1/2-inch vertical jump). "He has great leverage and length," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He's quick and he can bend. He puts his body in a position that a lot of guys can't do." Peppers can move like a basketball player.".

10. Gary Green—Nine blocks including two punts in nine seasons. If the ball was kicked in any way he had a shot to stop it. He's fire off the line and layout as well as anyone.

11. Ed Sprinkle—Again, a player with incomplete statistics but still a high number of blocks, at least nine, mostly punts.  

12. Leo Nomellini—Webster records five blocked kicks, but records are so spotty in the 1950s that if we had full records, he might challenge the top. On film, he hustles and is athletic on FG and PAT attempts.

13. Frank Cope—Like with Nomellini and other early players full statistics are not available, but those that are available via gamebook review and film study shows that Cope was a terrific kick blocker.

14. Wahoo McDaniel—An original AFLer who was more known for his wrestling career, McDaniel led pro football in 1963 with four blocks, and his final tally was very high.

15. Sam Huff—Statistics do not exist for his career, but he claims that he was adept at blocking kicks and punts. Webster's research confirms that claim was accurate in the gamebooks and film that are available.

16. Night Train Lane—Another where full records are not available, so when Webster updates his work and published his definitive list Lane could climb. 

17. Eddie Meador—Meador holds the Rams record for blocked kicks with ten, though some others are close. He was an edge rusher who could slip and at block or deflect a placekick. He, unofficially, led the NFL twice (1962 and 1964)

18. Bob St. Clair—Named the "Kick Blocker" for the 1950s All-Decade Team in Dan Daly's fine book Pro Football Chronicles. "Geek" was 6-9 and his inclusion is based on anecdotal evidence. 

For years there was an unverified report that he blocked ten kicks in one season, but quite a few researchers have debunked that and it's gone the way of the Norm Willey 14-sack game. (According to Paul Zimmerman he had 8, still, not too shabby).

So, while we, too, doubt the 10 in a season, he was reported to have a proclivity to block kicks, perhaps a proclivity that was bigger than the one that caused him to eat raw meat. So, while we have no numbers, we feel strongly he deserves to be mentioned here. 

19. Erich Barnes—Like Night Train, another tall edge rusher. And like the earlier player on this list could rise as Webster's research becomes more complete.

20t. Lloyd Mumphord—Nine blocks for Mumphord. He and his cohort Curtis Johnson really helped the Dolphins in the early 1970s. In 1972 they combined for five blocks to give their contribution to the Perfect Season.

20t. Curtis Johnson—Eight blocks for Johnson and as mentioned, with Mumphord, the Dolphins had two excellent edge rushers could vary the rush and confuse blocking schemes.
22. Cornell Green—The Cowboys top edge blocker ever (Ed Jones best interior).

23. Steve Tasker—Six blocks, mostly punts but he also had some punt deflections plus one in a Super Bowl, which were as nearly as good as blocks. So based on the difficulty of blocking punts and also the near-near misses he leapfrogs the group of inside rushers we've tied at 28th on this list.

23. Ivory Sully—Sully, in our view, was one of the best all-around special team players ever, he could block kicks and punts, cover, block for returns and could also return a kick himself.

He seemed to have a knack for blocking kicks in clutch situations or that resulted in catastrophic (scoring) plays against the opponent. In 1979 he blocked a Viking punt that the Rams returned for a touchdown. In 1980 he blocked a punt that was recovered by Rams for a touchdown.

In 1982 a blocked field goal kept the 49ers out of the NFL playoff tournament. In 1983 he blocked a potential game-tying kick, again versus the 49ers. In 1984 he blocked a Giant punt that went out of the end zone for a safety. He also blocked the first punt in Tampa Bay Buc history in 1986.

The only 'nondescript' block, if you will (relatively speaking, that is) was a blocked field goal versus the Jets in 1983—but it still allowed the Rams to get to overtime where they ultimately lost.

24. Pat Thomas—Seven blocks, and among them are both punts and kicks. The seven blocks came in seven years before his knees gave out. He once blocked a field goal and punt in the same game and the punt resulted in a touchdown for the Rams and the field goal prevented three points and the final margin of victory for the Rams in the game was two points.

25. Denico Autry— Eight blocks in just five seasons (however just two are field goals) and he led the NFL with three blocks in 2015. He's on pace to be among the elite if he keeps up this pace. He's turned into a pretty good three-technique as well. He's this high already have on his per-season average, the great linemen following all played a dozen or more years. 

However, since we are giving the benefit of the doubt now, if he does not get many blocks the next few years he'll drop and perhaps be one of those lower on the list that had a few or two big years then nothing else. We'd also like to see him get more field goals, though a blocked PAT can be important.

26t. Bob Rowe—Webster's work shows Rowe with 9.5 blocks (one was shared) in nine seasons. In 1972 he blocked three field goals in one game against the Colts and was the AP Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts. He ended that year with 3.5 blocks which led the NFC and in 1975 he had three blocks which tied for the NFL lead.

26t. Art Thoms—Thoms had the six in 1972 to lead the NFL and ten in his career.

28t. Ed Jones—Eleven blocks for "Too Tall" which is good, but you'd maybe expect from someone who was 6-9. He had three in two different years which accounts for over half of his blocks. He tied for the NFL lead (with Joe Nash) in 1989 with three and was second in blocks in 1978 with three.

We've tied about fifteen defensive linemen at 20. First, we know this is just a list and the rankings this low are not really relevant and we don't take ourselves so seriously as to think the ranks have to be perfect. Second, when you have a bunch of linemen between eight and eleven blocks how does one separate them? There are ways to do that but when the number is, say, 10 in a 15-year career, there is some fuzziness in the math and it's hard to really quantify.

In the future, Nick Webster will do a post with all the final numbers that are available and have a formula that takes into account field goals, PATs and punts and so on and for the 'statheads' it will be more satisfying. This list is about the art as well which is why we include the likes of Cope or St. Clair.

28t. Bubba Smith—Nine and a half blocks, the half is one he shared with Hendricks.

28t. Carl Eller—Ten blocks for Moose (including one in playoffs), eight field goals and two PATs.

28t. Clyde Simmons—Ten blocks (plus one in the playoffs) in fifteen seasons once had four in one season. A Tall (6-6) rangy player with long arms.

28t. Joe Nash—Nine blocks in fourteen years. He tied with Too Tall Jones in 1989 with three. He also tied for the NFL lead in 1984 and 1985 with two (albeit it was a down couple of years for blocks).

28t. Claude Humphrey—Nine blocks, five in 1974 alone (he was second to Ted Hendricks in the NFL that year).

28t. Coy Bacon— Nine blocked placekicks in fourteen seasons. Seven with the Rams one with the Bengals and one as a Redskin. He also played for the Chargers but didn't have a block with them.

28t. Jack Youngblood—Eight blocks and one deflection plus one more blocked kick in the playoffs. The deflection came in 1983. The Green Bay Press-Gazette wrote, "Youngblood knifed through the middle of the line and got a piece of Jan Stenerud's PAT but it carried over the crossbar and caromed off of the stanchion. . . . Stenerud said, 'We knew that Youngblood had a knack of twisting through. It nearly cost us the game'".

28t. Deacon Jones— Eight blocks in fourteen seasons, but none after 1970.

28t. Dan Hampton—Eight blocks. Named the "Kick Blocker" for the 1990s All-Decade Team by Dan Daly in Pro Football Chronicles.

28t. Rob Burnett—Eight blocks on placekicks in fourteen years

28t. Israel Idonije— Eight blocks, four PATs and four field goals. He was the NFL leader in 2007 with a total of three blocked kicks.

28t. Craig Terrill— Eight blocks. A stout defensive tackle, just 6-2, was another of the 'hustle-types' that could push inside and get some penetration and a block. He led the NFL in 2010 with three.

28t. Tim Irwin— Nine blocks in fourteen seasons. A tall guy (6-7) with long arms. Only the second offensive linemen on this list.

28t. Sean Jones—Another of the tall guys with eight blocks in a fine career.

43t. Ted Vactor—Had eight blocks, bunched in three seasons but many were big-time plays in big games.

43t. Eugene Daniel—Eight blocked kicks in his first five years, then none the rest of his career. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown. Solid special teams player, too, with a high of 13 tackles on kick/punt coverage in 1985.

43t. Issiac Holt—Five blocked punts plus two blocked placekicks in eight seasons.
43t. Nolan Cromwell—Five blocked punts plus a deflection, and also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown. An integral part of the punt block team his entire career, blocking three punts in his final season. He was an edge rusher and in 1978 he scored a touchdown on a blocked punt and the blocked two, one went for a touchdown,. The next year one of his punts was returned for a touchdown.

47. Bill Hewitt—No numbers, of course, are available so the evidence of Hewitt being an excellent kick blocker are anecdotal but Chris Willis of NFL Films named him one of the best two-way ends ever and that kick blocking was part of his skill set.

48. Gary Lewis—Lewis played four seasons, 1981-84 and blocked nine kicks plus one more in the 1982 playoffs and deflected at least one other. He had four in the 1982 strike-shortened season and five in 1983 to lead the NFL both seasons. The five in 1983 were often blocks of potential game-winning or game-tying kicks. His five blocks that year were composed of three field goals and two PATs. He didn't block any kicks in his other two NFL seasons. He had to leave football due to serious illness.

49. Fred Carr—Carr had one monster year then not much on his other seasons. In 1976 Carr blocked three field goals and two extra points to tie with Alan Page for the NFL lead in blocks. At 6-5, built a lot like Matt Blair you'd think he might have been dominant for a long time but as far as we can find, he only blocked kicks in 1976 (five) and 1971 (one).
50. Rod Woodson—Seven career blocks. Woodson was a special player. A Hall of Fame corner who could have been a HOF as safety had he played there his entire career, he was excellent in returns and also could pressure a kicker. The definition of a football player.

51. Cory Littleton—With only three years in the league, Littleton is the least tenured player on our list. He already has four blocked punts and one deflected punt and one near-miss (shown in the card below). He tied for the NFL lead in blocked kicks in both 2017 and 2018.

If he stays on special teams (he's now a starter) he could really amass quite a total if he keeps up the current pace.

52. Lee Roy Selmon—Six blocked kicks but all in three seasons. None in the other six.

53. Johnny Fuller—He had a big year in 1971 with four blocks, plus a couple in pre-season.

54. Ken Reaves —And effective edge rusher with good height (6-3) for a corner and long arms. he had six career blocks.

55. Flozell Adams—Seven blocks for the Hotel. He led the NFL in 2003 with three blocks and tied for NFL lead with two in 1999.



56. James Williams—The Bears recorded right blocks for "Big Cat".

57. Richard Seymour—Seven blocks in twelve seasons plus another in the playoffs.

58. Dave Rowe—A total of seven blocks, including an AFC-leading four in 1974.

59. J.J. Watt—So far Watt has four blocked kicks, so he's on pace with the group of players we have tied at 20 on this list. He's not an elite kick blocker, though, like Page or Rodgers or even Peppers yet.

60. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie—Four blocks, all early in his career, we were told by one NFL special teams coach that he was a marked man for most of his career. When he got the blocks early he was always going to draw the blocking. So it's a case of his skills being as good a many above him on this list but the 'numbers' are not as high.

61. Steve Gleason—Four blocks in just seven seasons for Gleason before he was felled by ALS. Had he been able to stay healthy he may have been in the Tasker-area of this list.
62. Justin Bethel—Four blocks in his seven-year career.

Other notables: 
Edge
Herb Adderley
Johnnie Johnson
Ed Reed
Tim McDonald
Bill Malinchak
Bobby Freeman
Nate Allen
Mike Gaechter
Inside
Mike White
Neil Smith
Joe Greene
Sherman White
Vern Den Herder
Calais Campbell
Gary Jeter
Ed Neal
Clay Matthews
Jerry Sherk
Paul Smith
Eric Swann
John LoVetere
Nick Buoniconti
Wilbur Young
Curtis Weathers
Jim Bailey
Buck Buchanan
Tom Sestak
Fred Robbins
Jeff Cross
Dale Dodrill
Bill George
Joe Klecko
Doug Atkins
Andy Robustelli

As always a list can go on and on but we feel confident that we've covered the top guys but if you think someone deserves some mention, let us know so we can update. And as we get more information from Webster we will update as well.
Updated 5/1

13 comments:

  1. Where's ex-Redskin Bill Malinchak? George Allen kept him on the team just to block kicks.

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    1. He had three big punt blocks but those are the only ones in his career. He's in the honorable mention list, but he just didn't have the success. There are a lot of good ones we don't have on the list but could add, but it just got too long. He could have put on Bubba McDowell, Dennis Smith, Marlon McKeever, William Judson, Brad Van Pelt. We think we covered it. But do appreciate your comment

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  2. What about Reggie Harrison. From Pittsburgh blocked punt returned for touchdown. In super bowl history only player too. Do it. He was my friend and football coach in high school at Washington Lee in Arlington VA

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    1. Our list is for those who blocked more than one kick. Harrison's kick was huge...but he didn't many (or any) others in his career.

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  3. John, have you seen (can you confirm) film that shows the (urban legend?) of the early 50s Rams "throwing/lunching" Vitamin T Smith over the offensive line on FG attempts?

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    1. I have not. I have seen Big Daddy with Don Burroughs on his shoulders, that clip exists.

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  4. What about Nate Allen as an edge blocker?

    I remember Gary Lewis during his time on GB...he was like a kick blocking specialist because he didn't really do anything else. Mark Moseley's FG attempt at the end of the 1983 MNF game was wide because it seemed like he was trying to hit it around Lewis.

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    1. Nate Allen was bordeline for the bottom of the lest, we could add him, but he'd be in the 50s, he had a half-dozen blocks, but a few were pretty big...

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  5. But wasn't the Viking kick blockers like Blair, notorious for launching off the backs of their defensive lineman ?

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  6. Doesn't Ed Reed have two or three blocked field goal returns for TD's? Maybe be didn't block them, though.

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    1. I would have too look, he blocked a few kicks early in his career

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