Shortly after Shane Lechler announced his retirement from football, former teammate J.J. Watt christened him “the greatest punter to ever walk the earth,” while former punter Pat McAfee predicted he’d be “a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
And that’s great. Except they’re wrong.
Because Shane Lechler isn’t the best punter ever. Ray Guy is. Nor is Shane Lechler the best punter in the history of the team that drafted him, the Oakland Raiders. Ray Guy is.
And as for being a first-ballot Hall of Famer … slow down, people. It took Guy – the punter on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team – 23 years to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the first … and only … punter to reach Canton.
And then it was as a senior candidate … or after he’d been voted down seven times.
There’s no question Shane Lechler deserves Hall-of-Fame consideration. The guy was a nine-time All-Pro, including six first-team selections, a seven-time Pro Bowler, an all-decade choice and a punter who played 18 seasons and averaged an NFL-best 47.6 yards a kick for his career. He also led the league in punting averages five times and kicked one punt of 50 or more yards in 33 consecutive games from 2003 through 2005, the longest streak since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
In short, he was considered the best at his position.
But so was former kicker Morten Andersen, who was an all-decade first-team choice not once but twice. That means there was nobody better at his position for 20 years. Andersen was also the league’s all-time leading scorer (since broken by Adam Vinatieri). Yet it took him four tries as a finalist and five years of eligibility to reach Canton.
Reason: The Hall is blind to pure specialists. I’m sorry, it just is. There are only three in Canton (Jan Stenerud, Andersen and Guy), though it’s hard to image they won’t be joined by Vinatieri when he decides to retire.
So let’s say that happens tomorrow. Whom do you think goes into Canton first: Vinatieri or Lechler? I think you know the answer. And it won’t be on a first ballot.
Granted, the credentials of Guy and Lechler are similar. Guy was voted to eight All-Pro teams; Lechler to nine. Guy had six first-team All-Pro nominations; Lechler had six, too. Guy was named to an all-decade team. So was Lechler.
But Guy trumps him with two aces: 1) He was voted the greatest punter in the league’s first 75 years, and 2) he was a three-time Super Bowl champion. Yet it still took his candidacy over two decades to resonate with Hall-of-Fame voters.
Where Lechler’s supporters push him as the punter who outkicked the competition, Guy’s strength was precisely the opposite. He wasn’t measured by distance. He was measured by hang time. He could launch a ball so high that it made returns difficult for opponents, many of whom were pinned deep in their own territory.
In fact, he was the first punter to ever hit the Louisiana Superdome video screen.
OK, so what? Well, so he was more than a punter. He was a weapon. And he was an invaluable weapon for a championship team that played meaningful games. When I think Ray Guy, I think field position … and offer Super Bowl XVIII as Exhibit A.
Of his seven punts that day, five were dropped inside the Washington 20.
“He’s the first punter you could look at and say, ‘He won games,’ “ said Hall-of-Fame executive director and resident historian Joe Horrigan.
You can’t say thast about Lechler, and that’s not a knock on him as much as it is his teams. They didn’t win a lot of games. During his tenure with the Raiders and Houston Texans, there were six winning seasons. What’s more, the combined record of the two teams was 115-173, a .399 winning percentage, with Lechler going to one Super Bowl.
But then there’s this: While Lechler outkicked the competition, he also outkicked the coverage. According to Pro Football Journal, Lechler ranks 20th among punters of his era in net average with a distance of 39.1 yards per kick. The Rams’ Johnny Hekker is first at 43.1.
Also, according to Pro Football Journal, Lechler’s inside-the-20 ratio-to-touchbacks was above the NFL average only three times during his career.
Furthermore, among contemporaries Hekker, McAfee, Andy Lee and Thomas Morstead, the Journal reveals that Lechler has the highest career gross average but the lowest net, the highest percentage of touchbacks, the highest average of yards-per-return and the next-to-highest percentage of returned kicks (only Lee was higher).
Look, I’m not here to discredit Shane Lechler. The guy was an exceptional punter for a long time and may wind up in Canton. But I am here to offer a dose of reality.
Ray Guy is the platinum bar for punters. Not Shane Lechler. And just because Hall-of-Fame voters have fallen in love with first-ballot choices lately – with eight of the past 15 modern-era inductees elected in their first years of eligibility – it doesn’t mean they’re about to fall in love with pure specialists.
Which is another way of saying: Pump the brakes on any and all first-ballot talk, people. It didn’t happen with Ray Guy. And it won’t happen with Shane Lechler.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF