November 4, 2011

1923: Cub Buck Punts 19 Times as Packers Edge St. Louis All-Stars

In the early days of pro football, versatility was a prized asset in a player, and kicking was among the most important skills. There were no specialists at that time, and punting was significant in what were often low-scoring, defense-dominated games that turned on the battle for field position. Howard “Cub” Buck of the Green Bay Packers was a tackle who could also kick, and on November 4, 1923 he set an unofficial record for punts in a game with 19 (the NFL didn’t officially keep punting statistics until the 1930s).

Buck was one of the biggest players of his era, listed at 6’0” and around 260 pounds (sometimes as high as 280). An All-American in college at Wisconsin, he had joined the pre-NFL Canton Bulldogs in 1916, where he blocked for the legendary Jim Thorpe and was involved with college coaching on the side (in 1917, he became head coach at Carleton College). The Packers signed Buck upon joining the new American Professional Football Association (still a year away from being renamed the National Football League) at $75 per game. He was worth it, for by all accounts he was an outstanding tackle on both offense and defense and, of course, could kick.

The Packers came into the game at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis with a 2-2-1 record and were trying to keep pace with the Bulldogs and Chicago Bears in the divisionless league’s standings.

The ambitiously-named All-Stars, owned and coached by Ollie Kraehe (who also played guard), were anything but. In their first (and only) season in the NFL, they had yet to score a point in any of their four league games (they had beaten the non-league Murphysboro All-Stars 25-0 in their opening contest), although thanks to two of the games having ended in scoreless ties the record was 0-2-2. As attested to by the two 0-0 games, one of which was against the Packers in Green Bay, the defense didn’t give up many points – a total of 12 in the two losses.

The turf was muddy and playing for field position was even more the order of the day than usual. The crowd on hand numbered a modest 750. Green Bay had the ball 14 times in the first half, with the result being 11 punts and a missed field goal attempt, all by Buck, and two turnovers. Late in the third quarter, a 50-yard punt by Buck was fumbled by back Eber Simpson and recovered by the Packers at the St. Louis 16. Following two short running plays, Buck kicked a 20-yard field goal. It was all Green Bay would need.

On the Packers’ next possession, Buck quick-kicked on first down and the punt sailed 60 yards to pin the All-Stars inside their ten yard line. The Packers turned the ball over twice more in the fourth quarter, but Buck’s punting continued to keep St. Louis stuck in its own territory and Green Bay came away with a 3-0 win.

Highlighting the difference in the style of play at that time, of Buck’s 19 punts, five were on first down, one on second, eight on third, and just five on fourth down. Buck also completed a 13-yard pass to tailback Curly Lambeau (also the team’s organizer and coach) out of punt formation. While there was no precise total for the punting yardage, it is estimated that he averaged 31 yards per kick. Considering the conditions – and the likelihood that the same, sodden ball was in play throughout – it was an impressive performance.

The Packers won their four remaining league games to finish third in the league with a 7-2-1 record. In those four contests, they gave up a total of seven points. St. Louis won its next game, scoring its only points of the season in a 14-7 verdict over Jim Thorpe’s Oorang Indians, and ended up in 14th place at 1-4-2 (their last scheduled NFL game was cancelled and they lost their finale, a non-league game at Benld, Illinois). The league withdrew the franchise the following year.

Cub Buck tied for fifth in the NFL with six field goals and added five extra points for a total of 23 points. It was his best season for placekicking and scoring – and, at least in one game, for punting. He played another two seasons, through 1925, and retired to become head coach at the University of Miami.

The official league record for punts in a game is currently 16, by Leo Araguz of the Raiders against San Diego in 1998. But at least unofficially, Buck has held the record for 88 years.

As a footnote, for any of the chief rivals to the NFL where the statistics are available, the record was 11 in the All-America Football Conference, World Football League, and United States Football League (in the AAFC, it was accomplished by Glenn Dobbs of the Los Angeles Dons vs. the New York Yankees in a 1949 game; Florida’s Billy Hobbs punted that many times in a 1974 WFL game against Houston; and in the USFL, Dario Casarino of the Boston Breakers reached 11 against the Chicago Blitz in 1983).