Saturday, April 13, 2019

The NFL's Greatest Punters of All-Time (Post-WW II)

OPINION
By John Turney
This headline was intriguing to us—Patriots: Bill Belichick says it’s not all about distance for punters so we checked it out.

The takeaway for us was this quote, "Punting is such a situational play; it’s not just standing there and kicking it as far as you can,” Belichick said in a conference call. “It’s making the right kick in the right situation. Sometimes part of that is the rush, sometimes part of it is the coverage, sometimes part of it is the field position and game situation, time left and so forth, and certainly the elements and field condition come into play."
The Punter (1908). J.C. Leyendecker
Yes, exactly. So we do our best to take into account all those things and ask some questions of our own, but even though the punter gets the stats, like all football plays it is a team effort. It's the snap, the protection, the punt, the coverage and then if the bounce is good or bad or if it's a missed tackle.

As Belichick notes it's the conditions, field position. There is no way to look at historical punters with all of that data and the more recent punters have much more data but then you face the comparing across eras dilemma.

That said, there are certain stats we like, even though like all football stats they are skewed in some way or another. We prefer a higher net average than a lower one, for example. Gross average is fine, but if it yields long returns, then it's counterproductive and raises the risk of a long return.

We like inside-the-20 to touchback ratio (20/TB), higher is better and suggests a punter is trying to pin an opponent in, though there are some questions we have on it, at times. We like fewer returns as a percentage of punts over more returns (A Paul Zimmerman favorite).

We like fewer punts blocked as opposed to more. The same goes for touchdown returns. We can ask how much of a blocked punt is on the punter and how much is on the protection, 50-50? 75-25? We don't know. Is a touchdown return on the punter, the coverage or both? Again, that's for the Belichick's or John Fassel's of the world to answer.

Sure, we like a big leg, especially if it yields a lot of hang time or can generate a 75-yard punt when the punter's heels are on the back of the end zone line.

Additionally, if a team does not have a kicker with a strong leg they may punt from the 35-yard line more often than a team that has a kicker who can nail a 53-yard field goal. So, if he punts from the 35 to the two, it's just a 32-yard net, but it's a perfect punt.

The question of outkicking coverage comes up a lot but it's tough to define. If someone outkicks the coverage and the ball sails over the returners head and bounces 15-20 yards and the net punt is 65 yards it's a good thing. But if a punt is even 1-2 yards deeper than the coverage can handle it gives the returned 3-6 feet extra to make a move and make a tackler miss.

Ask yourself, can a great athlete like a Devin Hester make someone miss with little-to-no room? If you give him another five feet will it help him? Or think of yourself as the gunner. Is it easier to tackle a guy who is three feet away or six or nine feet away? So, while hard to define, the fine punters have over the course of the NFL's history found a way to limit returns.

After the top two picks we are going with less verbiage than normal. It would become repetitive because similar-type punters will populate the list, though there will be some boomers, too. We like the disciplined punters who are good at limiting returns, avoiding blocks and who have a high net.

But, prior to 1976 some of the numbers come from our own research and are unofficial Also, we lack some of the numbers we need. There is a possibility some of the teams that have not backdated their net punting numbers may do so soon and perhaps even a major stats company. But we don't know.

So all we can do it go by the information we have and rank players accordingly but we do reserve the right to make changes as newer information becomes available.

So, with that intro here is our list—

1. Johnny Hekker, 2012-18
Yes, just like with Justin Tucker and the kickers we went with a current guy with amazing stats over the Hall of Famers. Previously, Ray Guy was THE best punter of All-time and may end up being that when Hekker is done, but when you look at what Hekker has done, relative to his peers and to the All-time greats, not picking him would be a copout.

Hekker is the top net punter in NFL history and is two yards ahead of who is second. Two yards may not say much but in a field like this, when a half-yard or less can separate players on All-time lists, two yards is a mile.

His 20/TB Ratio is 8.3 to 1 is crazily high and over 2.2 (27%) better than who is next. If you like gross average he has it, he's at 47.0, among the best-ever. He's had just one punt blocked and one returned on him for a touchdown, that's two super-negative plays out of 542 punts for a .37% rate, the best ever.

He's been a First-team All-Pro four times and a Second-team All-Pro twice in seven years and has led the NFL in net punting three times and has been second twice, all while dominating the previously mention stats.

Also, it's worthy of mention he's a fine holder, filled in as a kicker when Greg Zuerlein was hurt and didn't miss a kick and he may be the best-ever at fake punts, with the ability to run or pass for a first down.

As great as Ray Guy was, the entire body of work has, in this snapshot of time, put Hekker at the top of the list.

2. Ray Guy, 1973-86
Just because we don't have him at number one on this list does not mean we don't think Guy wasn't great. He was. He was ahead of his time in many ways. His hang time was legendary, he (according to our research) led the NFL in net punting twice and was second twice.

He was a  six-time First-team All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro twice and was voted to seven Pro Bowls. He was All-Decade for the 1970s and was voted the punter on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. We fully expect that he will be the punter (if only one is chosen) on the NFL's upcoming 100th Anniversary team. The voters will likely not consider Hekker who will have completed just his eighth season at the end of this centennial celebration year. He was also the punter on three Super Bowl-winning teams.

For his era, looking at pre-1976 punting data his 20/TB ratio was good, but not off-the-charts and he had 3 punts blocked and four returned on him for seven super negatives for a good .67% rate.

In 1974 the NFL changed much of the kicking and punting game. On punts only two players could leave at the snap, the rest had to wait for the kick and as such punt return numbers exploded and we had stars such as Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Rick Upchurch. Punters and coaches had to come up with a strategy to limit that. It took some time, but by the early 1980s the counter was the controlled punting game, limiting returns, kicking higher not necessarily longer, though both happened.

And the best punter of that transitional period was Guy and being the best in that era means a lot. It's just that in this modern era, Hekker is simply further ahead of his peers than Guy was his. Sorry.

3. Horace Gillom 1947-56
They didn't pick punters on All-Pro teams when Gillom played but if they did and did so with the same sensibilities as today we think he would have been All-Pro four times and perhaps Second-team All-pro one more time and that does not count 1947-49 in the AAFC. He has a slew of rings as the Browns punter for their dynasty from the mid-1940s through 1955.

Gillom was a defensive end by trade, was 6-1 and 211 pounds and kicked them high and deep. We've calculated his net punting average to be 38.2 give or take a tenth. He did have six blocked, though three came in his second to last season.

4. Bobby Joe Green, 1960-73
We are going out on a limb here because we don't have data from every season, but based on what we have Green avoided the negatives and limited return yards. We think his net is very high for the era but do not have an exact number. He kicked in Pittsburgh then in Wrigley field, i.e. poor conditions for his entire career, not to mention going to Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit for road games.

Given that it's odd he was overlooked for post-season honors (just one Pro Bowl). He led the NFL in net punting in 1961 and when complete stats are known may have led two other seasons in the 1960s and was highly ranked in other seasons.

Of course, it is possible he peppered the end zone with kicks and his net average will fall, we need complete data but we feel confident that the touchbacks will be within the norms of the years we do have and for the era and if that holds true, then he's really one of the best ever. He was also reliable on fakes (like Hekker is) or aborted punts, completing 6 of 10 passes in his career.

5. Sam Baker, 1953-1969
Like Green, Baker's net punting stats were excellent. We think his net punting is a hair under 38 yards a punt. We are sure he led the NFL in net punting in 1957, 1959 (with a 42.8 net which would rank 17th best for a single to this day), 1962 and 1963. He only had three blocked and allowed give returns for scores (.71%).

6. Tommy Davis, 1959-1969
A shout out to Dr. Z. Yes, Davis was extraordinary, it's just that a few others were a bit more extraordinary.  We've pegged his net punting at 37.8 for his career and he had just two blocked. His gross punting was amazing, as Zimmerman points out... and remember his net punting suffers from having to kick to Gale Sayers twice a year! For his first four seasons for the 49ers here is where he ranked in net punting each year starting in 1959—2-1-3-2.

We love this poetic passage by Zim about Davis, "(I)f you were sitting anywhere near me in the Kezar Stadium end zone, with the wind blowing in your face, watching Davis trying to get the Niners out of a hole ... “Come on, Tommy! Please, God, let him get one off!”... and hearing that sweet KABOOM! as he rockets another one into the gusts in the windiest stadium in the league. A high hanger into the wind, 48 yards from scrimmage, 4.8 on the stopwatch. Week after week of that, game after game."

There is nothing more we can add to that.

7. Thomas Morstead, 2009-18

Has the stats like Hekker, but only not as good, trails Hekker in the key metrics. Bill Belichick calls him (and Hekker) weapons. We won't repeat the stats but they are excellent, he's gotten post-season honors, especially from Pro Football Focus and is one of the top few kickoff artists ever in terms of depth of kicks.

8. Yale Lary, 1952-1964
Tremendous gross average, good net, but too many touchbacks for out tastes. Maybe they didn't care back then, who knows, but his net would have been higher had he coffin cornered it a bit more. We've seen full games of him (playing safety) when there is a punt you jsut watch it, we've not 'graded' and we would not say he's what Zimmerman calls a "middle of the end zone punter" but given his leg, he maybe could have been more calculating. 

9. Sammy Baugh, 1937-52

A near honor pick, Zimmerman wasn't a fan, " For years Sammy Baugh, with his phony gross average built on quick kicks, the old bounce-and-roll play, was the all-time career record-holder. Davis was second in gross yardage, punting in the worst conditions in football.".

Again, we've seen a handful of full games and the gangly Baugh boots the ball hard but not enough data exists to truly grade. We do know that nine blocked out of 338 punts, which is a issue. His 45.1 yards per punt was the record for a long, long time. But, we have to put some trust in the writers of the time who opined that Baugh was the best punter ever. This post is from WWII to present but we grandfathered Baugh in since he straddled the cutoff point.

10. Reggie Roby,  1983-98
A couple quick steps then the ball is gone. Roby had great hang time, limited returns and did all the right things well. He was Second-team All-1980s Team (should have been First-team) and was All-Pro in 1984 and 1994. He also got post-season honors in five other seasons.

11. Rich Camarillo, 1981-96
Twice All-Pro and post-season mention in five other seasons, the same as Roby. In 1982 he was second in net punting, in 1983 he was first, 1989 he was second, 1990 he was tied for second, 1991 he was first, 1992 he was first, 1993 he was third, and in 1994 he was third. 

No, not a perfect resume, but he was clearly ahead of his peers. 

12. Matt Turk, 1995-11

Turk as All-Pro once, Second-team All-pro twice. He was tops in NFL in net punting in 1996 and 1997, was second in 1998, and second in 2001. Had just three blocked and three punts run back on him for a .52% rate, one of the better ones you will find.

13. Craig Hentrich, 1993-09
Led NFL in net punting in 1998 and was second in 2003 but was highly ranked other years. A classic placement punter.

14. Sam Koch, 2006-18
Given his punting conditions maybe we are shorting him on this list. Like Hekker and Morstead scores high in all the key metrics. Has a career 39.5 net average and a 5-1 20/TB ratio, one of best-ever. 

15. Shane Lechler, 2000-18
As we outlined recently Lechler has both great and not-so-great traits. He has led the NFL in net punting four times and was second once and third once, but his 8.5 yard differential between gross and net was one of the worst ever. He's what Zimmerman called "A middle-of-the-end-zone punter."

However, we recognize that he was voted to seven Pro Bowls and First-team All-Pro seven times and Second-team All-Pro twice. he was First-team All-Decade for the 2000s. Part of that is there is no place to sort out who the top net punters of the 2000s were (or any decade for that matter). Then again, Lechler's net punting was still pretty good just not super. 

To collect data for this post we have to sort through Pro Football Reference, NFL.Com, NFLGSIS, Pro Football Database, Pro Football Archives, ESPN.com and then dig into the old NFL Record & Factbooks and the NFL League Manuels that preceded the Factbook. There is no one-stop shopping on the subject of punters. It was a pain in the ass. 

We're quoting ourselves here (hat tip to "Chet" from Kicking and Screaming) but we repeat this paragraph from earlier in this post:

"The question of outkicking coverage comes up a lot but it's tough to define. If someone outkicks the coverage and the ball sails over the returners head and bounces 15-20 yards and the net punt is 65 yards it's a good thing. But if a punt is even 1-2 yards deeper than the coverage can handle it gives the returned 3-6 feet extra to make a move and make a tackler miss. As yourself, can a great athlete like a Devin Hester make someone miss with little-to-no room? If you give him another five feet will it help him? Or think of yourself as the gunner. Is it easier to tackle a guy who is three feet away or six or nine feet away? So, while hard to define, the fine punters have over the course of the NFL's history found a way to limit returns."

We are sorry to have to say it, but Lechler didn't seem to do that consistently. His punts were returned for over 11.2 yards each when the NFL average during his career was 9.1, a 2,1 yard difference. Why? We don't know. But we feel justified in not having him in our top ten, we will put it that way.

16. Brad Maynard, 1998-11
Did yeoman's work, not a "boomer" as Dr. Z called some punters, but good at placement and the things we outlined. He also, like Hekker, was very good at fake punts and kicks (he held for placements), he was 5-of-8 career passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns and no picks.

17. Paul Maguire, 1960-70
An excellent career net for his era (36.6) was one of the top two punters in the history of the AFL.

18. Jerrel Wilson, 1963-78
Like Lechler, lots of very good (All-Time AFL punter, Second-team ALl-Decade of the 1970s), he was a three-time All-Pro and a Second-team pick four more times, but dang, did he get a lot of punts blocked (12).  Again, how much was on him? How much on the protection? But when there are guys who punt 1,000 times have have 3 blocked then there is someone with 10 or twelve, you have to at least ask the question

He was a boomer, Zimmerman said he 'attacked' the ball. he was certainly respected.He did lead the AFL in net punting in 1964 and 1968 and was tied for second in the NFL in 1970 but there were years he was not even in the running for the league lead. 

19. Mike Scifres, 2003-15
We loved his game and for a while was the best punter in the NFL in our view. But the blocks come up, he had 10 blocked, however, seven were in two seasons, other than that he was pretty good. He did get post-season honors and at least once, maybe more, we think he should have been the All-Pro punter over Lechler, but the voters of the AP, SN and PFWA didn't see it that way.

20. Jeff Feagles, 1988-09
Like many, namely Scifres and Maynard, Feagles "got it" and punted to the key statistics, however we see that he was blocked 12 times and wonder what was going on. Was it ALWAYS the protection?

He was All-AFC in 1995 and a Pro Bowler in 2008—14 years apart. Impressive.

21. Andy Lee, 2004-18
Maybe should be higher here, combined a great gross with a good net, not quite the disparity between the two as Lechler or some of the others coming up but he did a better job with the ratios and to some degree limiting returns. We are getting to the point to where there is little difference between say, number 16 and number 25 (as examples).

22. Mike Horan, 1984-99
Similar to Maynard and Feagles but left-footed. All-Pro in 1988, other post-season honors in 1984 and 1989.

23. Pat McAfee, 2009-16

Tough guy, loved to give out a big hit on returns. Two-time All-Pro, two Pro Bowls, four blocked and seven returned on him. For how short his career was those are a bit on high side.

24. Brian Moorman, 2001-13
Second in the NFL in 2005 and 2006 (All-Pro both years), kicked outdoors in Buffalo and only two catastrophic plays (two returns for TDs and two blocked punts) in his career.  He was Second-team All-Decade for the 2000s and even so, is likely underappreciated by fans and media at large.

25. Brett Kern, 2008-18
Seemingly getting better. The only reason he's not higher is that in a historical context he's pretty far behind Hekker, but someone else doing a list may put him higher. Kern's 6.1 to 1 TB/20 ratio is second best to Hekker's 8.3 to 1. 

26. Dave Jennings, 1974-87
Early in his career, especially, he sure gave up a lot of return yards but given the state of the Giants in the mid-1970s but in this case it likely was the coverage and not him outkicking the coverage. he would get kicks blocked in bunches, then go a while without one. 

He was a three-time All-Pro and two-time Second-team All-Pro. He was second in net punting in 1975 (unofficially) and in 1979, first in 1980 and is one of Bill Belichick's favorites. He gets extra points for being good in fake situations.

27. Dustin Colquitt, 2005-18
28. Britton Colquitt, 2009-18
The Colquitts are fine controlled punting artists.

29. Donnie Jones, 2004-18
A Second-team All-Pro in 2008 and 2009 he was pretty good all around, and for a big leg guy minded the metrics well.

30. Chris Gardocki, 1991-06
Punted 1177 times and didn't have any blocked. He allowed 5 TD returns which is okay, but had a pretty high 7.1 difference between gross and net. He was All-Pro in 1996 and Second-team in 2000. He allowed 10.0 yards per return, pretty high, but was punting for the expansion Browns for a few years, that couldn't have helped.

31. Sean Landeta, 1985-05
Landeta was First-team All-Decade of the 1980s and Second-team for the 1990s. He deserved neither. Yes, he had some good years he was third in net punting in 1986 and first in 1989 and a couple more in the top five but that was it. 

What is bothersome is not the six blocked punts, that is within norms it's the 17 punts returned for touchdowns against him. We have not checked everyone but the highest we've found by anyone else is ten. 

32. Rohn Stark, 1982-97
Kind of the Shane Lechler of his day, if you liked gross average, he was your guy, he did get some honors so on that basis we have him ahead of some others we like better, but didn't get the honors.

33. Bobby Walden, 1964-77
We have him leading the NFL in net punting in 1964 at 41.6, in the top five in 1967 (we don't know the leader that year, could be any one of five punters, we await further data to make final determination), led the NFL for the Steelers in 1970. He did struggle getting punts off in Super Bowl X, you could see it was getting close to the end of the line for him. He does get extra marks for being one of the better punters (maybe only behind Hekker) in executing fake punts. He could run or pass for a first down better than almost anyone.

34. David Lee, 1966-78
Lee was a big guy, 6-4 230 pounds and led the NFL in net punting in 1966 and 1969 (over 40 yards in both seasons) and led the AFC once. However, had 11 blocked. In some ways seeing film of him he reminds us of Jerrel Wilson in style.

35. John James, 1972-84
Outside of Ray Guy, he was the NFL's best punter of the 1970s and should have gotten the Second-team All-Decade nod in our view.

36. Mike Bragg, 1968-80
A precision punter but didn't kick it deep, liked to kick them high and limit returns. Had 10 blocked.

37. Todd Sauerbrun, 1995-07
Not a favorite but was All-Pro twice and went to three Pro Bowls. He's in the Lechler, Landeta-type camp. Big gross, the net is okay in those specific years, but built on a high gross. Difference between gross and net was over 8 yards, nine blocked, ten returned for scores, so some good and some bad.

38. Darren Bennett, 1995-05
All-pro in 1995 and 2000 and was the 1990s First-team All-Decade punter. Maybe should leap some of the 'boomers' but Bennett was good, but not great in our view.

39. Brandon Fields, 2007-15
Solid all-around, big man, 6-5, 249 pounds.

40. Bryan Anger, 2012-18

41. Bryan Barker, 1990-05
Solid, steady, usually error-free. Nothing spectacular, likely should have been 1990s All-Decade punter or at least considered. All-Pro in 1997. 

42. Mitch Berger, 1994-09
Two-time Pro Bowler, All-pro in 1999, one of top five kickoff legs ever. 

43. Lee Johnson, 1985-02
Got better as he got older, left-footed, big-time leg, outside Morten Andersen he was as good a kickoff artist as you can find. He began his career as a 'boomer' and became more precision towards end of his career, good enough at it that Belichick brought him in for a stint.

___________________________

It's not that these guys are worse than those in the 30s or early 40s on this list, especially the recent guys, it's just that there is less to say about them. Their stats or all okay to good, relatively speaking, some got some post-season honors, it's just that there were in the "good" category, not the elite. 

We'd say the top 8-10 are elite, 11-15 or so the excellent, then after that the very good to good and the "good" goes to the end of this list. 

other notables
Don Chandler, 1956-67
Good punter, good kicker, not really great at both, but certainly above the curve.
Pat Studstill, 1961-72
Bob Parsons, 1972-83
Billy Lothridge, 1964-72
Larry Seiple, 1967-77
Kevin Huber, 2009-18
Jon Ryan, 2006-17
Mat McBriar, 2004-14
Steve Weatherford, 2006-15
Dave Zastudil, 2002-14
Greg Montgomery, 1988-97
Rick Tuten, 1989-99
Tom Rouen, 1993-05
Chris Kluwe, 2005-12
Jason Baker, 2001-12
Tommy Barnhardt, 1987-00
Nick Harris, 2001-12
Dan Stryzinski, 1990-03
Tom Tupa, 1988-04
Chris Mohr, 1989,91-05
John Kidd, 1984-98
Jim Arnold, 1983-94
Brian Hansen, 1984-88,90-99
Jeff Gossett, 1981-83,85-96
Mike Saxon, 1985-95
Mark Royals, 1987,90-03
Greg Coleman, 1977-88
Herman Weaver, 1970-80
Billy Van Heusen, 1968-76
Dennis Partee, 1968-75

Plus many others... but the key is to focus on the top of the list, we just wanted to make it clear we looked at everyone in ways no one has looked before. There are more up-and-comers who have yet to reach 500 career punts (Ryan Allen is one) to qualify for this list. Sammy Baugh had fewer than 500 but he's the exception rather than the rule.

Address all complaints to the author.

10 comments:

  1. Landetta is on the all 80s AND all 90s teams? He won two Super Bowls? He kicked in Giants Stadium? And you have him 31 and disparage him? You do not have a clue.

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    1. Yeah, sure I don't have a clue. Landeta had a 43.3 gross average and a net 35.3—a 8-yard difference which is among the worse all time. He had 17 punts returned on him, most all time. He outkicked his coverage. He allowed over 10 yards a return...not good.

      My guess is you are a Giants fan who doesn't study the game of football in any kind of depth.

      Delete
  2. Why don't you factor in hang time with these statistics? Some of the coverages were mediocre at best which isn't necessarily the fault of the punter. I would argue this to be the case for Pat Mcafee since the Colts special teams was lackluster at best outside of their kickers.

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    1. Hang time is part of the mix,but McAfee had issue. I loved that he was someone who would hit a returner, but as I said, he had more blocked and more returned on him than the top guys.

      And all punters don't get all the blame for super negative plays, but I cannot just give McAfee a break.

      He had a 6 yard difference between his gross and net, often means outkicked coverage. If that was the case, he needs to adjust.

      Delete
    2. I would have put John James higher and mentioned Larry Seiple somewhere but yours is a great list

      Delete
  3. Can you tell me why? It's fine to disagree, I welcome it, bu I am curious as to why James should be higher

    I could add Larry Seiple to the honorables, by research shows that they were both better than average, but not really great in terms of net

    average and avoilding blocked kicks.

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  4. I don’t remember Seiple ever shanking a kick , he was just the model of consistency , With James he fielded lousy snaps better than anyone with maybe the exception of Rich Camarillo , I don’t know how that skill could bump these two up statistically but I think it’s important enough to be considered . A bad snap could easily change the outcome of a game. Again I love your list and it’s great to see someone who appreciates punters as much as I do

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  5. Sean Landeta should be at least in the top 20 or 15, this list is very off, it might be harder to make the list accurate with that many people.

    ReplyDelete