Friday, January 6, 2023

David Lee's 1966 Rookie Season—A Punting Performance to Remember

 By John Turney 
David Lee
1970 Topps Poster
Tennessee Titans rookie punter Ryan Stonehouse will break the single-season record Sammy Baugh record for the highest gross average yards per punt in a single season. 

Going into the final weekend Stonehouse is averaging 53.0 yards per punt and Baugh's record, set in 1940, is 51.4 so it is almost a mathematical impossibility for him to get break it. It is amazing that the gross punting average mark has stood for 82 years, one of the longest-standing records in the books.
Ryan Stonehouse
However, Stonehouse's net punting average is 44.0 yards, which is good for third in the NFL while his gross average is, of course, first. Opposing teams have returned 57 of his punts for 603 yards against the Titans and he's also punted 9 touchbacks, which is tied for 29th in the NFL which also lowers his net punting. 

Stonehouse is young and he'll figure out the nuances of the game, increase his hang time, control the ball more and be a more effective punter. When he matches elite skill with rare leg talent, watch out. 

Looking back, though there have been other impressive rookie punting seasons. Ray Guy's 1973 season, Reggie Roby's 1983, and Dale Hatcher's 1985 year when he was a Pro Bowler and led the NFL in net punting average to name just a few. But perhaps no rookie season for a punter was more impressive than Colts David Lee.

Lee was a 6-4, 230-pound signed by the Cleveland Browns as a free agent out of Louisiana Tech in 1965 and in 1966 was traded to the Baltimore Colts. In his first year led the NFL in gross punting yards, averaging 45.6 yards a punt. However, what was not known until recently is his net numbers. They were not kept at the time by teams or the NFL. Oddly there were kept in the 1950s but stopped in the 1960s and did not being again until 1976.

By checking more recent Colts Media Guides and also the NFL's website Lee's net punting average can be calculated. The figure is 41.7. 

So, is 41.7 good? Well, it would have led the NFL from 1967 all the way through 2008 with the exception of 1972 (The Rams Dave Chapple's 42.1 net)—41 out of 42 years. 

That covers the Jerrel Wilson era, the Ray Guy era, the Reggie Roby era, and the Sean Landeta era, and half the Shane Lechler era.  None of them, or anyone, had a higher net punting average than 41.7 in a single season.

Since 2008 lots and lots of punters have done it. Too many to count, really. This year, through 17 weeks eleven have a better mark. Last year it was eight. From 2009 a few more did it each year—punters have been rocking it since in the last ten to twelve years.

Lee's net average would have led the league at least dating back to 1950 when NFL Record and Rules Manual listed the statistic for teams and the net punting figures can be backed into mathematically with the numbers at It very likely goes back to 1940 and Baugh's gross punting record. 

However, that was such an outlier in terms of gross average that it is just impossible to know what the net was because punt return records are not available that far back and touchbacks are certainly unknowable. So, the trail ends there.

We do know that Lee's rookie performance in net punting average is worth remembering. Only one player beat it in 42 years in an era where punters and the science of punting got better and stadiums got domed and field conditions improved, with a couple of exceptions. 

It really is remarkable when you reflect on it. It is very impressive indeed.

Here are the game-by-game stats—
Chart credit: PFJ
Source: Colts Media Guides


  1. From Brian wolf ...

    Hats off to Stonehouse breaking the record as a rookie ... I thought the Titans were crazy letting go of Rex Kern before the season.

  2. What about the punting game has changed for the next average to skyrocket since ‘08?

    - D.A.

    1. Nothing in the rules. Maybe just college punters coming into the NFL more prepared, more refined and knowing that net is the key--also better skilled in the Austrailing style of punting...don't think, though there was a jump, just that the increase reached the 40 yard benchmark at the top in 2009 - the best of the best. The net average increase-- just went faster from 35 in 2000 to 36 in 2004, 37 in 2007, 38 in 2008, 39 in 2011, 40 in 2015 and it has flattened - maybe that is where it will stay because of a limited field length and the limits of what can be covered--don't want to outkick coverage...and so on . . hangtime still important and all that

  3. I think it's amazing that from 1964 to 1997, the best gross punting average in any season was 46.9. 16 punters were better than that this season.
    Hall of Famer Ray Guy's best ever was 45.3 in his rookie year. That would've been 27th best in 2022.
    Similar with kicking. Before Tom Dempsey's record breaker... the record was 56 by Bert Rechichar. 15 kickers were better than 56 in 2022. Amazing! ~ MB

    1. in 2022 kicks of 50+ were 69% successful.
      In 2004 kicks of 40+ were 68% successful