Sunday, January 04, 2009

Punt Returns

A long time ago in a far away place, 1973 in Memorial Stadium at Cal-Berkeley to be precise, I saw a punter be the star of his team's win in a big game. Ray Guy, then a rookie for the Raiders, was the reason Oakland beat the Dolphins 12-7 to end Miami's then-record 18-game winning streak. As the score indicates, the contest was totally dominated by the defenses, and Guy's kicks consistently had Miami starting drives inside its own 30. After Guy's last punt, which went 60 yards and was touched dead inside the 10, coach John Madden ran onto the field to embrace Guy.

At the time, this feat was something I thought I'd never see again in pro football. And I didn't, until last night. Mike Scifres of the Chargers was the primary reason San Diego beat the Colts 23-17 in their wild-card playoff game. Yes, I know Darren Sproles had an historic all-around game for a back and scored the winning touchdown. Without Scifres, Sproles would be remembered for fumbling on the Colts' 1-yard line, the signature mistake in a long line of Charger errors.

Scifres punted 7 times for an average of over 50 yards. Four of those punts gave Indy the ball inside its 15. His last punt, with three minutes to play and his team down 17-14. went out of bounds on the Colts' one-yard line. That punt won the game.

The Colts' problem in 2008 was no secret. They couldn't run the football. An unbalanced offense has trouble mounting long drives. Peyton Manning was 25-42-310 with no interceptions, and Indianapolis still only scored 17 points because Manning made the bulk of those yards moving the ball up to midfield.

So needing a first down to win the game, Scifres put the Colts in the one place where running is essential, and passing is limited by the urgent need to protect the quarterback from the whiff of a sack. Which, as it turned out, the Colts couldn't do. They punted, San Diego got the ball with a short field, and never looked back.

Score one for punters. I hope Ray Guy was watching the game. It is one of my personal crusades to see Guy named a member of the Hall of Fame, and a quixotic crusade it is, too. The Hall of Fame voters, who are distinguished former professional peers and some of whom are good friends, sneer at me. Their consensus, expressed by the voter whom I usually respect most, is "punters aren't football players."

No? Then how come every football team HAS a punter? The punting defense team now calls its first and only witness. Coach Bill Belichick, could you take the stand please?

Talk to us about punting, Mr. Belichick.

"Well, there aren't too many other plays in football where you move the ball 40 yards."

The defense rests. It also wishes to note that Mike Scifres will be voted a full playoff share by his teammates. The San Diego Chargers think he's a player. Their player.


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