Ray Guy is the only punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which definitely makes him the most well-known NFL punter, and maybe the only well-known NFL punter. I tried to talk to him for Rays Week but it turns out he is somewhat aloof. The Pro Football Hall of Fame reached out to him for me and didn’t hear back, and the same goes for the Raiders, with whom he spent his entire 14-year NFL career. A contact at the Augusta Sports Council, which presents the Ray Guy Award, said the Guy family has declined media requests “for the time being.”
All the phone numbers I found for Guy were dead, so we won’t get to hear what he thinks about the growing trend of NFL coaches going for it on fourth down instead of giving their punters a chance. After combing through some of Guy’s stats and comparing them to today’s punters, I imagine he might be alarmed at the slow death of punting.
The NFL switched to 16 games in 1978, and Guy played eight full seasons of 16 games. In those eight seasons (1978–1986, with the exception of the strike-shortened 1982 season), he punted an average of 83 times per season, or slightly more than five times per game. And this man was not playing for woeful teams; he won three Super Bowls on John Madden’s and Tom Flores’s Raiders.
In 1981, Guy punted 96 times, his career-high. In 1984, he punted 91 times, and in 1986, he punted 90 times. A.J. Cole, the current Raiders punter, never punted more than 67 times in his two 16-game seasons, and in 2021, the NFL’s first 17-game season, he punted only 64 times, or 3.7 per game. Even in a 14-game season in 1976, where the Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl, Guy punted 67 times, still more than Cole in three fewer games.
Maybe a better comparison to show the drop-off in punting since the Ray Guy era is by looking at the 2021 all-pro punter Bryan Anger. Anger has played 10 NFL seasons for the Jaguars, Buccaneers, Texans, and Cowboys. In 17 games for Dallas in 2021, Anger punted only 65 times. At the start of his career on a very bad Jaguars team, from 2012–2014, Anger punted in the low 90s like Guy did, but since 2017, Anger hasn’t punted more than 70 times in a season.
All these numbers can be explained by teams just going for it more often. In 1986, Guy’s final season, there were only 388 fourth-down attempts across the NFL. In 2021, that number was 798.
The very worst offenses are still punting close to Ray Guy levels (hello, 2021 Houston Texans, with 88 punts last year) but the league is trending downward as a whole:
In 1978 (the first 16-game season), the NFL averaged 87.8 punts per team. In 2020, the NFL hit an all-time low for a 16-game season: 59.4 punts per team. The league hasn’t averaged more than 70 punts per team per season since 2017, and in 2020, NFL teams punted fewer than 2,000 times for the first time since 1992.
Personally I am thrilled with this trend, but if I could talk to Guy, I imagine he would probably say that today’s punters aren’t doing enough work. At this rate, there may never be another Hall-of-Fame punter.