Ask football fans this question – “greatest punter who ever lived?” – and nine times out of 10 the answer will be: “Ray Guy.”
For nearly half a century that always has been my answer, and I watched Guy punt just about every Saturday when Guy played at Southern Miss back in the early ’70s. He controlled football games is what he did with his booming, high spirals that often soared high above the press box. The term “hang time” was invented because of Ray Guy.
But here we are, nearly half a century later and my answer has changed.
Greatest punter I ever saw?
Ray Guy and Thomas Morstead. No longer can I choose between the two.
Hard to believe now that Morstead is in his 11th season with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him in the fifth round of the 2009 draft out of SMU. And I remember my reaction at the time: What? As bad as the Saints are on defense they used a fifth round choice to draft a punter?
Man, was I wrong. Man, are the Saints glad they did. Morstead, when he has the opportunity, controls football games. He makes your defense better. That’s what he did Sunday when the Drew Brees-less Saints went to Seattle and upset the Seahawks 33-27.
Teddy Bridgewater, replacing Brees, played well at quarterback. Alvin Kamara, the Saints running back, was surely the game’s most outstanding player. The most valuable, however, was Morstead, who reminded anyone watching how important a great punter can be.
Morstead averaged 54 yards a punt on six punts. Those six punts were returned a total of 12 yards, meaning the Saints netted 52 yards per punt. In contrast, Seattle punter Michael Dickson averaged 41.3 yards on four punts, which were returned a total of 53 yards, a net punting average of under 30.
In other words, the Saints gained a net of more than 20 yards per punt. In a close and hard-fought game, that was the big difference. When Morstead had the opportunity, he flipped the field. He can stop a punt seemingly the same way a PGA Tour pro puts back spin on a wedge shot.
Four of Morstead’s six punts left the Seahawks starting inside their own 20-yard line. Perfect example: Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at 7, the Saints were forced to punt from their own 34. Morstead boomed a 64-yarder that landed at the Seahawks’ 5-yard line, and then bounded out of bounds at the 2. Football old-timers refer to that as a “coffin corner punter.” But few people have ever kicked a coffin corner kick from so far away. Ray Guy used to do that.
Morstead’s next punt went 54 yards and was downed at the Seattle 3.
We used to see that every Saturday at Southern Miss. The late P.W. Underwood, USM’s coach at the time, took one look at Guy’s kicking and told his assistant coaches: “The first one of you who tries to mess with his kicking form is fired!”
Once, against Louisiana Tech Guy boomed a 55-yarder into the end zone. USM was flagged for lining up wrong, so Tech chose to make him kick it again. Guy punted 60 yards into the end zone, but there was another flag on USM. Tech made him kick it still again. Next punt? It went 64 yards and out of bounds at the Tech one.
Guy did stuff like that all the time. He kicked a 93-yard punt at Ole Miss that actually traveled 110. He kicked a 61-yard field goal in a snowstorm at Utah State. He still shares the Southern Miss career pass interception record.
Guy was an fantastic all-around athlete who happened to punt. So is Morstead.
When Morstead was a rookie, I told him he was the greatest punter I had seen since Ray Guy. He told me Guy was his idol. “Greatest ever,” Morstead said of Guy.
I was supposed to be interviewing Morstead, but he kept asking me questions about Guy. So I told him about the 93-yard punt and the 61-yard field goal and the time Guy knocked a Memphis Tiger’s teeth out with a vicious tackle on a pass over the middle. I told him about Guy pitching a no-hitter in baseball and reaching a 530-yard par-5 with a driver and a sand wedge.
So, later that afternoon, Morstead was fooling around at the Saints practice field while his teammates scrimmaged. Seemingly tired of punting the ball, Morstead started drop-kicking it. On his second try, he drop-kicked a 51-yard field goal that would have been good from 55.
I never saw Guy do that, although I am certainly not saying he could not have.