The long-running saga of Ray Guy breaking the glass ceiling for punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a case of perception vs. reality – and trying to prove that they were one and the same.
The perception has long been held by many that Guy was a sure-fire Hall of Famer – the man who pioneered the modern punting game. His credentials were so well known and well regarded that many inside the NFL assumed Guy was already enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue once even introduced Guy as a Hall of Famer, prompting a sheepish correction from the Thomson legend.
“I hate to tell you but I’m not,” Guy told Tagliabue.
Boston Herald NFL reporter Ron Borges encountered a similar situation sitting in a press box one game next to former Clemson and Washington lineman Jeff Bostic.
“Somehow Guy came up and (Bostic) thought he was already in the Hall of Fame,” Borges said. “I said he wasn’t. He said, ‘What are you guys doing? You’re a bunch of nitwits. How can Ray Guy not be in the Hall of Fame?’”
Borges has been covering the NFL since 1975, a beat writer with the Sacramento Union and Oakland Tribune when Guy was at his peak from 1975-82. He’s been a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 13 years.
Borges has always considered Guy a Hall of Famer, but whether he’d ever get that official designation was another story. So when his fellow members on the Senior Selection Committee asked Borges to present Guy’s eighth finalist attempt to his fellow selectors last season, there was only one sure thing.
“If he didn’t get in this time he was never going to get in,” Borges said. “That was clear.”
So Borges had to make the case where seven others had failed before. There were a few hurdles he had to get past to sway those selectors who weren’t convinced.
One was younger voters who’d never seen Guy play and tended to defer to the judgment of those who came before. Another faction included a few who steadfastly believed that punters didn’t deserve to be in Canton alongside “real football players,” and changing their minds was not likely.
“There were a number of voters, and you never really know quite how many, who firmly believed that punters just weren’t football players,” Borges said. “In some cases, to a degree, you could argue that, but that’s like saying pitchers aren’t baseball players. It’s a position and if you don’t have a punter, that’s pretty significant.”
Then there were the stats guys, who kept throwing out Guy’s relatively low career ranks in punting average and net average as proof he was somehow less than advertised.
“I know some guys were stuck on his stats in that he was something like 78th in net punting,” Borges said. “I knew his game and I knew the influence he had on games. I think if you didn’t see him, and a lot of guys on the committee these days hadn’t, and if you just looked at his numbers, the numbers don’t really tell the story there.”
“How do you quantify punting?” said Art Spander, a longtime Bay-area sports writer who believed Guy deserved to be in the Hall of Fame long ago. “Kickers get points. What do punters get? Nothing. So it’s hard to prove.”
So the only way Borges could change that perception was to prove Guy’s numbers were misleading. To do that, he spent several work weeks going over the play-by-play sheets of every one of Guy’s 1,049 career punts in 207 regular season and 22 playoff games, watching video and measuring hang times.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to find and was kind of worried I’d go back and not find anything,” Borges said. “But I knew how he influenced games. So there’s something missing.”
Net average and touchbacks weren’t even kept in the first few years of Guy’s career, so Borges was able to factor them in to help separate the numbers from the reality.
“And those changed his numbers pretty dramatically,” Borges said. “They didn’t make him No. 1 or No. 2 but it put him much more in the equation.”
The biggest factor, however, was context that gets lost in punting stats. Guy’s career was all about context. What Borges’ analysis found was that Guy kicked nearly 25 percent of the time from the opponent’s half of the field. In one game he kicked twice from inside the 30. Another game he punted from the opposition’s 23-yard line.
“What’s your net going to be?’ Borges said. “You don’t want to punt it into the end zone. So he put it out at the 4 or 3 and his net was 27 yards. Well, is that a good punt or a bad punt? That seemed to open the eyes of a number of voters. There was one game in particular he had seven punts, five from inside the other team’s 40. Net for the day was 28 yards and they didn’t return a single punt and he didn’t have a touchback. So did he influence the game? You better believe it. Was his net good? No, it was terrible.
“Once you see that, you realize this guy was being used as a weapon in a different way.”
And that was where the breakthrough came. Doubters who likened Guy’s stats to Jerrel Wilson, of the Kansas City Chiefs, couldn’t argue with facts that Wilson played for one of the worst offensive teams and often kicked as far as he could from deep in his own territory, while Guy played for one of the best offensive teams and was used to strategically pin the opposition.
“Jerrel Wilson was a good punter; Ray Guy changed the game,” Borges said. “I think one of the things that helped make the case for him was I pointed out that there’s only been one punter in NFL history who was in the top three in net punting and also played on a team with a top-10 offense. It was Ray Guy three times. Those kinds of things told a lot of his story. For some of the voters it made them at least think for a minute that there was something they were missing.”
Beyond numbers, Guy’s greatest legacy was as a special teams pioneer. He entered a league in 1973 that had few special teams coaches and redefined the landscape with his kicking acumen and his defensive-back instincts.
“He was such a unique and great punter that he changed the way that punting was viewed and changed the whole complexion of the game,” former Raiders coach Tom Flores said.
Borges impressed that point to his fellow selectors.
“One of the things a lot of guys didn’t know historically was special teams in those days was a 10-on-11 situation until Ray Guy came in, according to a number of coaches from that era who I talked to,” Borges said. “He became the first punter to attack and tackle. Now you had to change how you were playing them and return kicks because you had to cover for this guy, which made it easier for the other cover guys to get downfield.
“Whenever you have a person who changes the way the game is played, which Ray Guy did, if there’s no spot for him in your Hall of Fame then why do you have one?”
One of the most vocal long-standing opponents of Guy’s Hall of Fame campaign was Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who based his arguments against him on the stats.
“I felt if I could turn Peter I had a chance,” Borges said.
King happened to be sitting next to Borges in the room and commended him on his presentation.
“But the way he said it gave me the sense I hadn’t gotten him,” Borges said.
So before the final vote, each presenter makes one last pitch and Borges saved a bullet for anyone still on the fence. He invoked two of King’s past cause celebs.
“What I finally said was Harry Carson and Art Monk were nominated nine times each and in both cases I voted no eight times because I sincerely thought that they were in the Hall of Very Good,” Borges said. “But then they got nominated again and when I came into the room I said to myself I’m going to vote for them on the outside chance that I might be wrong and you guys might be right. That’s all I ask you think about for Ray Guy.”
King leaned over and told him, “You got me.”
And with that, Guy – a finalist seven times from 1992 to 2008 – finally got his due and surpassed the 80 percent of the votes necessary from the 46 selectors on the eve of the Super Bowl. Borges – whose voting peers have called him the patron saint of lost causes for presenting Les Richter (2011), Andre Tippett (2008) and now Guy in their breakthrough selections – was relieved when Guy walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall at the announcement.
“I was nervous as a tick to be honest,” Borges said. “I was very, very happy for him when he did – more relieved than anything else because I would have felt terrible if he didn’t get in. Ray told me when he got the phone call he literally fell on the floor in his room. Because he’d gotten to the point where he believed it was almost painful to be nominated.”