Lechler the best ever?

Shane Lechler is probably headed to his fifth Pro Bowl but the Raiders' punter has bigger plans for the final two months of the regular season. He's trying to chase down Sammy Baugh's single-season record, a mark that might confirm Lechler as the greatest punter in NFL history.

Shane Lechler is one of the few holdovers the Raiders have from their Super Bowl team in 2002. Some say he's been the team's most valuable player almost every since season, and there's little reason, statistical or otherwise, to argue.

He's already replaced Ray Guy in the Raiders' own history books, something no one ever dreamed possible, and now he's closing in on one of the NFL's longest-standing records.

Sammy Baugh's 51.4-yard average is the longest in league history in terms of gross yardage. Those are the numbers that really prove a punter's worth, since net average is more a reflection of the entire punt coverage team.

Baugh's record has stood for 69 years, with only one player making a serious run at it. That came last year when St. Louis Rams punter Donnie Jones hit an even 50.

Lechler, who has been to the Pro Bowl four times and is widely recognized as the best punter in the game today, is currently at 52.3 heading into this weekend's game against Kansas City.

"I don't know, man, it's just clicking right now," Lechler said Thursday, leaning back in his locker while casually talking with a few reporters. "It's kind of like when a batter gets into a groove. Everything just seems to be on right now and I don't know why."

It's no coincidence that Lechler's stellar season comes as Oakland's offense plods along as the NFL's worst. While he's always punting with field position in mind, it obviously makes it easier to rack up big numbers when you've consistently got 60-70 yards of open field ahead of you. And Lechler's certainly got the leg strength to take advantage of it.

"Unfortunately our situation helps him be the best in pro football," Raiders coach Tom Cable said. "You'd like him not to have that many opportunities. That's really the issue. He's been awesome. He's really had something to do with every game we've been in or the two games we won, exclusively. He is who he is, the best punter in pro football."

Maybe the best of all time.

He's got the resume, for sure. He owns the highest punting average in NFL history – currently at 47.1 – and has led the league in punting three times, as many times as Guy and one fewer than Baugh and Kansas City's Jerrel Wilson. He just missed breaking the rookie record of 45.92 in 2000 when he had a 45.91 average, and has single-handedly kept the Raiders from being complete failures in more games than any punter should have to.

Breaking Baugh's single-season record just might be the final piece of Lechler's puzzle.

"It's funny because I looked it up when I first got in the league and I'm still chasing him," Lechler said. "I'd have thought somewhere in there I would have caught him but those numbers are huge. You look back at those records and you see the numbers and you're like, ‘Were their calculations right then? You guys serious? How close were you guys watching this?' because these numbers are amazing."

Baugh passed away last December at the age of 94, and though he and Lechler were both Texas boys, the two never met. Still, Lechler has a great amount of respect for Baugh, who is in the Hall of Fame though not as a punter.

"He was a hell of a player, man," Lechler said. "He played (quarterback), he played some safety, too, and he punted. It kind of reminds you of one of those old Texas high school football players that used to play the whole game."

Cable said Lechler's numbers, while coming at the expense of the struggling offense, are impressive.

"It's huge to me because he consistently does it. It's not a game here, a game there, it's every week," Cable said. "We're very fortunate to have him. He can just hit a ball or two or three every game and change the field position. I'd rather see him punt less times, I think that's really the issue here. When he does have to punt, let him rip it but you'd rather have to see him punt less times."

With no sign that the offense will suddenly turn things around and take away Lechler's opportunities to grip it and rip it, his biggest hurdle could be the three December road trips to cold-weather cities in Denver, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

"We already dodged one bullet in New York," Lechler said. "We gotta go to Cleveland and to Pittsburgh, which you never know."

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