The Pro Football Hall of Fame has long been blind toward kickers, and you can look it up. Since opening in 1963, the Hall has enshrined exactly two – Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen – with Adam Vinatieri expected to join them when he retires.
But that’s it. Two … or one every 30 or so years, and there’s something wrong with this picture.
Simply put, you can’t tell me there aren’t more than two or three kickers out there who live up to Hall-of-Fame standards. Because there are. And former New York Giants’ star Ward Cuff is one them.
Never heard of him? Get in line. Cuff played 11 seasons, from 1937 through 1947, and he played with the Giants, Cardinals and Packers, with all but two years spent in New York. The guy was durable, versatile and invaluable – capable of playing a variety of positions.
On offense, he served mostly as a wingback in coach Steve Owen’s “A-formation” offense, which was a variation of the single wing, Cuff was called on to run, catch and, of course, kick … and the results speak for themselves. Playing in over 100 games, he averaged 5.4 yards a carry for his career, once carried 80 times in a season and produced 3,410 yards from scrimmage.
Oh, yeah, he twice led the Giants in pass receptions, too.
But why stop there? A former heavyweight boxing champion at Marquette University where he was the school’s record-holder in the javelin, Cuff’s considerable athletic abilities allowed him to play almost anywhere.
So Owen lined him up as a defensive back, and Cuff responded by setting a Giants’ record in 1938 with a 96-yard interception return. Then, three years later, he led the NFL in interception return yards. The guy was so adroit that when former Giants’ owner Wellington Mara in 1976 picked his all-time Giants; team, Cuff was one of his four defensive backs.
“Ward was outstanding as a runner, a receiver and a defensive back,” said Owen. “Above all, he was an Iron Man who could play with so many injuries that he often seemed to be taped from head to toe before he put on his uniform.”
But it was special teams where he excelled, with Cuff returning kicks (he averaged 12 yards per punt return) as well as converting them. The guy was a multi-skilled handyman, but the truth is: He was more … much more … than that.
Pure and simple, he was the premier placekicker of his era, leading or sharing the NFL in field goals four times and finishing in the top five eight times. He set a Giants’ career scoring record, was named All-Pro five times (including three first-team selections) and had his number 14 jersey retired by the Giants (it was later given to Y.A., then re-retired after he left the game).
Decades later, league historian and Pro Football Journal's Chris Willis, head of the Research Library at NFL Films, named Cuff the first-team kicker on his list of pre-World War II all-stars.
Willis admits that Cuff is a borderline Hall of Famer, and I’d agree. The guy was an indispensable piece of a Giants team that won the 1938 NFL championship and four times was a division king. Yet his value lay in his versatility, not his productivity, with Cuff able to play so many positions that when the Giants lost leading rusher and scorer Bill Paschal for the 1944 league championship game, Cuff moved from wingback to running back to replace him.
Result: He carried 12 times for 76 yards and a score in a 14-7 Giants’ loss.
Cuff played in four league championship games with New York, winning one (1938), and while his versatility was remarkable it was his contributions as a kicker that gains your attention. Because if, as Willis contends, Ward Cuff was the best of the pre-World War II era, he deserves to have his candidacy heard by Hall-of-Fame voters.
No, I don’t think it happens … not even with the Hall expected to endorse 10 seniors for the Centennial Class of 2020. And you already know why: The Hall is … and has been … blind to kickers. So it almost certainly will be blind to Ward Cuff, too.
“I have a lot of fond memories of him,” Wellington Mara once said.
Too bad voters don’t.
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