The Cold, Hard Football Facts are ardent pigskin traditionalists who believe that three things can be done to improve the state of the game today, and they should be done in this order:
1) Eliminate kicking specialists
2) Return to the single platoon system
3) Outlaw the forward pass
O.K., our third demand may be a little over the top. As Cold, Hard Football Facts inbred research troll Steve Hatch said when we discussed the idea, if you outlawed the forward pass you'd have rugby with pads. Everyone then pointed and laughed at the Chief Angry Troll. Point taken.
Our wish for a return to the one-platoon system will never happen, either. But it should. Imagine baseball if nine guys played the field and nine other guys stepped into the batter's box. That'd be pretty stupid, wouldn't it? But it's pretty much what we have in football. It would be great to separate the pretty-boy offensive stars from the real football players by making them play defense the way their forebears did for most of the game's history. Would Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens even be in the league if they had to play defense? One has to wonder. But, again, we realize it will never happen.
However, we stick by our insistence on ridding the game of the kicking specialist, a particularly hideous creature haunting the fields of the NFL. You all know the story: With rare exceptions, they're shunned by teammates, are infected by idiosyncrasies, have funny foreign names and have never held a real job on a football field. Let's put it this way: Would you want to go out for a beer with Rolf Bernishcke, Uwe von Schamann, Garo Yepremian or any of the members of the NFL circus and comedy act called the Flying Grammaticas? Of course not. You want to drink with gritty old-school warriors with nifty names like Chuck Bednarik
, Ray Nitschke and Tedy Bruuuuu-schi.
But the kicking specialist is a fact of the modern game and they've been in the news quite a bit in recent months, as "pundits" and fans alike have pondered the future of New England kicker Adam Vinatieri. Does he deserve to go to the Hall of Fame? Well, judging by his accomplishments relative to other kicking specialists, he surely does.
Vinatieri is the fifth-most-accurate kicker in NFL history, and he's nailed more big-pressure, game-winning kicks than any player ever. (He even established himself as one of the more athletic kickers in football and endeared himself to fans and teammates back in 1996, when he caught Herschel Walker from behind to prevent a kick return for a touchdown.) In fact, Vinatieri, who hypothetically could play another 10 years, is already considered such a lock for football immortality that announcers across the country often refer to him as "Hall of Fame kicker" Adam Vinatieri each time he's pictured trotting out onto the field.
So, based on his performance relative to other kickers in history, it shouldn't be a debate. Vinatieri belongs in the Hall of Fame. But it is a debate merely because it seems odd reserving a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for players who – with very rare exceptions – are never asked to master any of the most basic skills of the game: throwing, running, blocking and tackling.
There's a reason, then, why there's only one kicking specialist in the Hall of Fame: Jan Stenerud, the Norwegian skier-turned-placekicker who spent the bulk of his 19-year career with Kansas City. It just doesn't seem right, putting a kicking specialist in the hall. (Of course, this reluctance makes Vinatieri's ascension to Hall of Fame "lock" all the more remarkable.)
But while it's true that there's only one place-kicking specialist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (and not one punter), the Hall of Fame is filled with numerous Hall of Fame kickers. Their exploits deserve more than a little consideration – especially in a world dominated by football "pundits" who forget that pro football existed for nearly 50 years before the dawn of the "modern" Super Bowl era. The media echo chamber of today makes you believe that Stenerud and Vinatieri are the only kickers in the history of the league worthy of Hall of Fame status.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts, as they so often do, stand here to temper the echoing stupidity of the "pundits" and replace it with truth, wisdom and pigskin knowledge. And the truth is that Canton, Ohio, is filled with Hall of Fame kickers.
Several members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame spent their fair share of time as kickers or punters. Lem Barney, who played cornerback for Detroit from 1967 to 1977, punted for the Lions in 1967 and 1969, averaging 35.5 yards per kick. Don Hutson, arguably the greatest receiver of all time and certainly the most dominant
, kicked 172 extra points in his 11-year career and
played defense (he picked off 30 passes as a safety). Frank Gifford, one of the most versatile players in NFL history, saw spot duty as both a placekicker and punter. No statistics exist for early professional legend Jim Thorpe (an All-America halfback in college and 1912 Olympic decathlon gold-medal winner), but he was considered one of the great punters in the game. Countless other players saw spot duty as kickers. Our favorite player, Bednarik
, for example, attempted 12 punts in his career as a two-way center and linebacker.
But there are several Hall of Fame members whose kicking exploits stand above and beyond – men who probably would have made the Hall of Fame as positional players or as kickers. When someone mentions Hall of Famer Stenerud or future Hall of Famer Vinatieri as the best ever at booting a ball, you'd be well-served to remember the following men. They remind us that special kickers don't have to be kicking specialists.
Sammy Baugh (1937-52)
Washington quarterback "Slingin' Sammy" might just be the best all-around player in NFL history. Consider his performance in the 10-game 1943 season: Baugh led the league in passing (1,754 yards), punting (45.9 yards) and, as a defensive back, in interceptions (11). Baugh remained history's all-time leading punter (a career average of 45.1 yards) until last season, when Oakland's Shane Lechler (45.9) finally surpassed Baugh's 52-year-old record. (However, with a long career still ahead of him, it's quite possible that Lechler, now in his sixth season, will not be able to maintain his record-setting pace and that the record will again go to Baugh.)
Baugh is the only player who averaged more than 50 yards per punt over the course of an entire season: (51.4 yards in 1940). He also holds the mark for third-best single-season punting average in NFL history (48.7 yards in 1941). Baugh was a pretty fair country quarterback, as well. He led the league in passing six times and, in 1945, completed 70.3 percent of his passes, a record which stood for 37 years – until after NFL rulemakers instituted more stringent pass-interference rules and opened up the passing game. Baugh would have made the Hall of Fame as a quarterback or as a punter. Quite simply, he's the greatest punter who ever lived.
George Blanda (1949-58; 1960-75)
Blanda is one of the true legends of the game and one of the more remarkable players in the annals of professional football. He played pro football for 26 seasons – longer than any other player in history. However, he'll probably be remembered best for his 1970 season with Oakland. That year, Blanda saved the Raiders from defeat in five straight games with last-second field goals or touchdown passes and won AFC Player of the Year honors – at age 43.
Blanda is remembered primarily for his kicking exploits, but in 24 of his 26 seasons, he saw at least limited duty as a starting quarterback and was a fulltime starting QB for 10 seasons with two different teams (Chicago and Houston). His career started in 1949 and almost ended in 1959 when the Bears tried to strip him of his quarterbacking duties and make him a kicking specialist. Blanda left the Bears and resurfaced the following season with Houston of the upstart AFL. He attempted 4,007 passes in his career and racked up 26,920 yards and 236 touchdown passes (good enough for 16th all time, just behind Jim Kelly, 237, and ahead of Steve Young, 232). He also kicked 335 field goals and 958 extra points (still a record) and retired from football as the leading scorer in the history of the game (2,002 points). His scoring record has since been surpassed by Gary Anderson and Morten Andersen.
Lou "the Toe" Groza (1946-59; 1961-67)
Groza played 21 years in the NFL, all of them with Cleveland and the last seven (1961-67) as the league's first kicking specialist – which makes him either a groundbreaking trendsetter or the man responsible for ushering in the Grammatica Era of professional football.
Of course, Groza would have made the Hall of Fame as a kicker or as a positional player. As an offensive tackle, he earned All-NFL honors six times, played in nine Pro Bowls and was the NFL Player of the Year in 1954. He also appeared in more championship games, 13 (four with the old AAFC and nine in the NFL), than any player in history. He retired from football as the league's all-time leading scorer (1,608 points, a record later surpassed by Blanda and others). His signature moment came in the 1950 NFL championship game. It was Cleveland's first year in the NFL after dominating the AAFC for four years
. Cleveland proved it could hang and bang with the big boys by advancing to the title game against the L.A. Rams. The Browns won thanks to Groza's last-second do-or-die field goal. Groza kicked 234 field goals and 641 extra points in his career.
Paul Hornung (1957-62; 1964-66)
The Notre Dame and Green Bay "Golden Boy" is one of the more colorful characters in NFL history, famed for his hard-living, booze-and-broad-filled lifestyle off the field and for his big-game heroics on the field. He's also one of the great scoring machines in the history of the game.
Hornung began his career in pre-Vince Lombardi Green Bay and saw limited action at quarterback and running back. But as was the case with many of those 1960s Packers Hall of Famers, his career took a notable turn for the better with the arrival of the great coach, who made the Golden Boy a fulltime ballcarrier and kicker.
Hornung has held one of the more impressive records in NFL history for 45 years: he scored a record 176 points in the 12-game 1960 season, averaging 14.7 points per game. (Gary Anderson is second on the list, with 164 points in the 16-game 1998 season). Hornung rushed for 13 touchdowns, caught two more, kicked 15 of 28 field goals in an era when 50 percent success was desirable, and was perfect on 41 extra point attempts.
Hornung played a pivotal role in Green Bay's first championship of the Lombardi Era. He scored 19 points in a 37-0 win over the N.Y. Giants in the 1961 title game. The fact that Hornung even played was remarkable. He was a member of the U.S. Army at the time, and Lombardi reportedly used his political clout with President Kennedy to get Hornung out on leave for the game.
Hornung was a two-time NFL Player of the Year (1960 and 1961), scored 760 points in just nine seasons and led the league in scoring three straight years from 1959 to 1961. He might not have made the Hall of Fame purely for his kicking exploits, but perhaps no player in the history of football was a greater multi-dimensional scoring threat.