Not to get too dramatic, but every football punter living, dead or yet to be born has a huge stake in what takes place in the Sheraton ballroom in Manhattan on Saturday.
If Ray Guy is not elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, there may be little hope for any of them.
“If he fails to make it on Saturday,” said Ira Kaufman, the NFL writer and Hall of Fame selector from the Tampa Tribune, “we’re probably looking at a Hall of Fame without a punter.”
That, of course, has been the state of the Pro Football Hall of Fame since it was founded in Canton, Ohio, in 1963. The only “punter” among the lot is Sammy Baugh, a quarterback from the charter induction class who played in the quick-kick era.
Guy is the only true punter in the history of the game to even be considered as a finalist by the 46-member board of selectors. The Thomson, Ga., legend failed to make it in seven previous tries before being nominated this year by the senior committee along with former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey.
Senior candidates don’t count against the induction limit of five from the 15 regular finalists, but they still have to receive 80 percent of the votes. If at least 45 show up Saturday, that means Guy can’t afford more than nine strikes in the strictly yes-or-no vote. It isn’t a rubber-stamp pass, as former senior nominees Jerry Kramer, Marshall Goldberg (twice) and even Humphrey (2009) can attest to being among the nine of the 48 previous senior nominees shot down.
But it’s as close to a sure thing as it gets.
“There’s no reason these guys shouldn’t put the senior candidates in,” said Len Shapiro, a former senior committee member who was a selector for 29 years before retiring in 2012. “It’s a great honor to be picked by the senior committee. To me, I always thought what a slap in the face to be picked by the senior committee and then the full panel turns you down. That’s just demeaning. You don’t need to put a guy through that embarrassment or humiliation. And I think there is some humiliation when it happens.”
The five-man senior committee convenes for two days during the summer in Canton and exhaustively pours over candidate qualifications and presentations before making any recommendations. Darin Gantt, the selector from Carolina, is one of the younger panelists who values the senior committee process.
“I put a lot of stock in the recommendation of the senior committee because it is so thorough and well-considered the way they vet the candidates,” Gantt said.
Said Shapiro: “There was always a feeling that these guys worked their tails off on this ... we really ought to respect their judgment. But then again, there are people in the room who consider themselves ‘mavericks’ and don’t go with the flow and won’t do it.”
That is what happened to Jerry Kramer, a legendary guard for the Packers in the 60s. He was a nine-time finalist before getting turned down for a 10th time as a senior nominee in 1997. Vikings defensive end Carl Eller got through as a senior candidate in 2004 after failing 12 times as a regular finalist.
Guy’s is the third most considered senior nomination behind those two, with seven previous chances as a finalist. But he’s met entrenched resistance every time he’s been presented to the selectors.
“I was in the room all the times he did come up as a regular candidate and there was always a split between people who felt that all he does is kick the ball four or five times a game ... and he’s not a complete football player,” Shapiro said. “To me that’s ludicrous. If he’s on a football team he’s a football player. Just as much goes into his craft as an offensive guard learning to get the proper footwork to make a block.”
Kaufman, in his 10th year as a selector, agrees.
“It’s unfortunate in my opinion that it’s come to this because I always was one of those Guy supporters,” Kaufman said. “He’s one of those guys you had to see play. ... The reason that John Madden had that winning percentage was in part because of Ray Guy establishing that field position.”
Perhaps the punter with the biggest stake in Guy’s potential induction is a modern Raider, Shane Lechler. The current Texan has been the NFL’s gaudiest punter, with a record career average of 47.5 yards that dwarfs Guy’s 42.4. It’s Lechler’s stats that lead some selectors to claim Guy was overrated, though Lechler wouldn’t agree.
“Ray put the punting position out there with importance behind it,” Lechler told the Houston Chronicle in August. “Before his time, it was just another job for somebody to do. Once Ray came in and changed the field position, the whole ‘hidden yardage’ part of the football game became important. And he was the reason for that.”
Guy turned punting into a three-dimensional craft instead of a strictly north-south concept. He not only utilized angled strategy but practically invented the notion of “hang time” to prevent runbacks. No one ever returned a punt for a touchdown against him.
“He was sort of a magician with the ball off his foot,” Shapiro said.
Said Kaufman: “He played bigger than his sheer numbers. If you saw him punt, you knew he was unique and special and he gave the Raiders an edge in every game. He’s not a guy you strictly judge by the numbers.”
Saturday he will be judged by the selectors for perhaps the final time (three players have been nominated by the senior committee twice, with Lou Creekmur getting through on his second chance in 1996 after failing to get the necessary votes in 1980). Guy’s supporters are optimistic that his senior committee endorsement – and a thorough presentation by respected senior committee member Ron Borges of the Boston Herald – might finally put him over the top.
“It would really mean the world to Ray even though he probably doesn’t want to acknowledge it,” Kaufman said. “I think he deserves to join some of those former Raider greats in the hall.
“I think it’s going to be a special day for Ray on Saturday.”
If not, it could be a major setback for an element of the game that puts the foot in football.
“They wear a uniform like everybody else and what they do is a critical part of the game,” Shapiro said of punters.
“Special teams are 20-25 percent of the plays and to me that makes them relevant. They should not be irrelevant. It’s just silly not to have somebody like that in the Hall of Fame.”