There isn't much that makes the Raiders' Shane Lechler squirm before attempting a punt. After 10 NFL seasons, 158 games, 778 punts, five Pro Bowl berths and five first-team All-Pro nods, he has handled just about every situation a punter possibly can encounter.
Chasing Sammy Baugh, however, is one of the few things that can rattle the steady leg of the 2009 Golden Toe award winner.
Lechler, the first punter to win the Golden Toe since 2001 and the first Raider to win it since Ray Guy in 1975, entered Week 16 with Baugh's 1940 record for gross punting average in a season in his sights. For most punters, Baugh's mark is untouchable. It was within Lechler's reach, however, in '09.
Bailing a bumbling Raiders offense out by booting the ball 70 yards or so was old hat for Lechler. The gravity of his pursuit caught up to him, though, in Week 16 at Cleveland.
He entered the game with a gross average of 51.47 and was on pace to break Baugh's record (51.40).
His first three punts traveled 53, 42 and 46 yards. He stepped onto the field a fourth time with plenty of field in front of him, as Oakland's drive had stalled at its own 35-yard line.
"I had a chance to hit a big one," he told PFW. "It was kind of one of those deals — I did feel the pressure a little bit of chasing that record, and I overswung a little bit on one and wish I could have had that one back."
Lechler's punt traveled just 38 yards and he had another punt of 42 yards later that day. The 10-year veteran ended up with a 51.14 gross average, second-best ever, but broke his own NFL record for net punting, set in '08, by compiling an average of 43.9, which is a considerable leap from his mark of 41.2 in the previous season. Baugh's record proved elusive, though, as it has for the past 69 years.
"Being so close to doing something that hasn't been done in (69) years ... I knew what I needed to do the last two games and I kind of felt it a little bit in the Cleveland game," Lechler said. "After that game I needed to make up like 33 yards to get the record and I knew it was going to be a tough task with Baltimore coming into Oakland (in Week 17)."
Lechler, who has spent his entire career with the Raiders, doesn't come up short very often. He tied for second in the league in punts with 96 in '09 and racked up a league-high 4,909 yards. That's 198 yards more than the runner-up for punting yards, 49ers P Andy Lee, who ranked first in punts with 99. Lechler's punts resulted in a league-high 12 touchbacks, and he dropped 30 punts inside the 20.
One of the days from this season that he looks back at most fondly is Sept. 20, when the Raiders beat the Chiefs at Kansas City. Lechler punted seven times for 398 yards, resulting in an eye-popping gross average of 56.9, which ended up being his single-game season high.
"Over my career I have not punted real well at Kansas City," he explained. "It's just been a tough spot for me mentally to kick, because I've struggled there a few times.
"Looking back, there's maybe one or two punts out of 96 that I wish I could have had back and redone. Other than that, it's hard to say that I could have achieved or done any better because of that fact. I felt like I hit every ball exactly like I wanted to, and the gross average, any time you can go over 50, it's huge, because it's really only been done one other time."
Lechler could go down as the greatest punter of all time. His career gross average of 47.3 is the highest ever for punters with at least 250 attempts. The average for the great Baugh, who ranks fourth all time, is 45.1. Not bad for a guy who says he hated punting for much of his college career at Texas A&M.
"I went from playing every snap on Friday nights in high school — offense, defense, all the special teams — to getting to college and only punting," he said. "I found it quite boring, to tell you the truth. There wasn't enough going on for me at the time. It was hard for me to focus on just punting whenever you felt you could give so much more."
He has given the Raiders plenty during his career, but, unfortunately for Lechler, success in terms of wins and losses has not followed. As the team in Oakland has lost some of its relevance during a painful past seven seasons — the Raiders haven't won more than five games in a season since 2002 — the punter's accomplishments over the years haven't always received the level of recognition they warrant.
Wins and losses are a big part of any player's résumé, and Lechler said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Everybody is concerned with winning and losing," he said. "That's where the focus should be. I know whenever I get a chance to be with just my punt team, I try to focus those guys on our goals and not let the losing and stuff like that bring them down because there's something to being a part of history and that's what I try to tell those guys. 'Don't get down on our unit because no one has ever done what we've done collectively as a group.' "
If Lechler keeps this up, the losses will have a hard time overshadowing his final numbers.
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