Hunter Smith, the G(H)OAT: Special Teams Coach

Coach's claim causes league-wide holder smack talk

By JOSEPH WHITE
|  Monday, Aug 17, 2009  |  Updated 6:01 PM EDT
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The GOAT as goat: Hunter Smith holds for Adam Vinatieri missed 36-yard field goal attempt with the Indianapolis Colts against the Chicago Bears during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4, 2007. (They got their rings, anyway.)

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ASHBURN, Va. -- Best quarterback of all time? Best receiver? Best linebacker?

Every football fan has had those discussions. Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith threw down the gauntlet on a whole new category: best holder.

What's more, Smith said his new punter, Hunter Smith, may be the best holder in the history of the game.

Coach Smith based his case on the fact that until this year, Hunter Smith had spent his entire 10-year career with the Indianapolis Colts holding for Mike Vanderjagt and Adam Vinatieri, two of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. When Hunter Smith is the holder, the ball goes through the uprights an astounding 85.8 percent of the time.

When confronted with this fact -- and the bevy of statistics that followed -- Hunter Smith didn't exactly start rehearsing his Hall of Fame speech for Canton.

"This," he said, "is hilarious."

He is quick to remind that he was holding for two great kickers.

"I don't think the holder makes the kicker," he said. "The kicker makes the kicker."

Yet he was more than willing to engage in a little bit of holder trash talk. Special teams players have their own niche, and it just so happens that one of Smith's chief rivals for the crown is punter-holder Jason Baker, of the Carolina Panthers. The two are good friends and work out together in the offseason.

"As long as we are one-tenth ahead of Hunter Smith, I'm happy with that," Baker said with a laugh at Panthers training camp. "He's only ever known a right-footed kicker. What about the guy who can hold for a left-footed and right-footed kicker and it's seamless?"

How about that, Hunter?

"Well, he hasn't held for a right-footed kicker in a long time," said Smith, noting Baker's long association with Carolina's John Kasay.

And what about the fact that Smith has played half his games in the climate-controlled comfort of an indoor stadium in Indianapolis? Naturally he's going to get a better percentage than, say, the New York Giants' Jeff Feagles or Buffalo's Brian Moorman, two well-respected holders who regularly have to deal with cold, wind and the occasional snowstorm.

"When they gave us the Super Bowl ring, did it say 'indoor champions'?" Smith said with a sly smile.

So who really is the best of all time? Forget trying to Google it. It's a stat no one keeps. Going purely by the numbers, it has to be someone recent: The top 25 most accurate kickers in NFL history all played in this decade.

Sam Koch is having a good run with the Baltimore Ravens. Of course, he has Matt Stover as his kicker. Koch's percentage is right behind Smith's (85.8 to 85.6) and he's actually ahead of Smith when playoffs are included (86.4 to 85.9).

"Postseason statistics aren't statistics!" Smith said with mock indignation.

OK, so how about Mike Scifres with the San Diego Chargers? He's better than Smith in the regular season (86.1) but worse in the postseason (84.6).

"You know that I don't really care. The only thing that I care about is being better than him," Smith said, pointing to Baker's name on a piece of paper.

No problem there. Smith is a few percentage points ahead of his friend in Carolina.

As for Scifres, the punter had no idea how good he was at his side job.

"It's fun to be known as one of the best in the league at something," he said.

A better way to judge holders would be to calculate how many snaps they've mishandled, or how many times they've rescued a bad snap. That, of course, would be virtually impossible to calculate. Smith has no choice but to fess up to his last mistake: an extra point in the Super Bowl the year the Colts won the title.

"It was raining really hard. I was not prepared for it," he said. "It's nothing really to talk about it. I just didn't handle it. Thankfully it was one of those things at the end of the day didn't make any difference, but you never want that."

Not long ago, most holders were quarterbacks. Backups such as Koy Detmer and Jeff Rutledge stayed in the league as long as they did only because they were such good holders. Tony Romo held the job with Dallas until his infamous botched hold in a playoff loss in January 2007.

Nowadays punters are expected to hold -- they have more downtime to work with kickers than the busy QBs -- and punters who can't hold can have a harder time finding NFL jobs.

That's why Smith started learning to hold while in college, initially with his right hand _ which looked a bit awkward -- before changing to his left. At a recent Redskins practice, long snapper Ethan Albright spat out wayward snaps from the JUGS machine to test Smith's range.

"He's smooth," Albright said. "He reached out and grabbed it with one hand and put it down."

Asked to reveal his holder secrets, Smith said: "Having good hands, being calm and having a good work ethic. I work really hard at it. A lot of people think I'm crazy for working hard at something so repetitive, so seemingly easy."

Smith also has versatility. He ran 21 yards for a winning touchdown on a fake field goal in 2003, and -- lest anyone forget -- he's also a pretty good punter. The Redskins went through three punter-holders last season, and the special teams suffered as a result. Shaun Suisham led the league in missed field goals, and Washington ranked last in net punting average.

"Hunter's a punter," Danny Smith said. "It's been a long time since we've had one of those."

But what's the final verdict on Hunter Smith's standing as a holder? To give him his due, he's been reliable for a full decade, much longer than Koch, Scifres and most anyone else with a high percentage. He was also the holder when Vanderjagt had the most prolific perfect season ever -- 37 for 37 (40 for 40 including playoffs) in 2003. That was part of Vanderjagt's run of 42 in a row from 2002-04, still the NFL record.

So maybe, just maybe, he is the best. But if so, shouldn't he belong in the Hall of Fame?

Hunter Smith laughed again.

"I don't see that happening," he said.
    ___

AP sports writers contributing to this report: Mike Cranston in Spartanburg, S.C.; John Wawrow in Pittsford, N.Y.; Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia; Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J.; and Bernie Wilson in San Diego.
 

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