One of the greatest difficulties in evaluating kickers is being cognizant of weather and how it affects a kicker’s performance. Whether wind, rain, snow, heat, cold, humidity, or other forces of nature more powerful than a specialist’s weirdness, every kick is made in different conditions. Yet much of the evaluation process for kickers at every level involves kicking in near-perfect conditions, rather than seeing who can perform their best when Mother Nature is at her worst. Chuck Zodda explains why it is important to attempt to evaluate kickers in the context of weather.
Throughout sports, one of the keys to proper evaluation is putting performance in the proper context. I could look like a future NBA All-Star playing against fourth graders, but I would likely lose a game of one-on-one against any competent player in eighth grade who has already gone through his growth spurt and can counter the fact that my only move is to drive to my left. The quality of competition a player faces, the point in a season in which he faces that competition, what they are asked to do by their coach, and the sequence in which plays occur all play critical roles in providing a background against which to conduct an evaluation.
So it is curious that when looking at kickers, coaches, scouts, and general managers conduct much of their evaluation in environments that typically strip out one of the most important elements for a kicker – weather.
Beginning in high school, elite kicking talent convenes at a number of regional and national camps for specialists during the summer. Much like position players, who travel to various camps put on by colleges or former players, the primary reason for this timing is due to the simultaneous availability of both coaches and players because of summer vacation. With position players, being able to get top-end prospects together for competition is a massive advantage, as it allows coaches to have the proper context for which to evaluate players by providing high-quality competition.
But kickers are not directly competing with each other the same way position players do. While comparisons of statistical data can be made, a kicker’s main competition is with themselves, as the play of another specialist has no direct effect on their performance. As such, evaluations of kickers and punters do not gain the same advantage that those of position players do by having high levels of talent in one place at the same time. While certain insights can be gleaned from the competition between kickers, as well as the pressure in these situations, the lack of varied weather can be an issue when trying to evaluate specialists during the summer period.
Weather has a profound effect on a kicker, both from a physical and mental standpoint. The physical changes are easier to notice to the average fan – the lack of explosion off the foot in cold weather, wind blowing a field goal wide of an upright, or a kicker slipping as they plant during rainy conditions.
But the mental effects these changes have on specialists are significant as well.
A kicker looking to make a long kick in those frigid temperatures may unconsciously accelerate their approach to try to overcome the lack of power, throwing off timing and lowering accuracy. A kicker accounting for wind may be so focused on countering kicking’s greatest enemy that they pay too little attention to their plant foot and end up giving themselves a bad platform to kick from. And a kicker trying to deal with a kicking surface that feels like a waxed lane at a bowling alley may adjust their stride length and end up hitting a ball away from the sweet spot they usually target.
All of these are weather-related issues that may appear to be technique problems, when in fact, the greater issue is inside the helmet, and not having the proper approach to handling changing conditions. With the summer evaluation period typically occurring in warm climates where weather is a non-issue, evaluators often are given an incomplete picture of how a kicker can perform in adverse conditions. And the undeniable fact is that for kickers who want to compete at the NFL level, they will have to compete in those conditions at some point throughout their career.
Much was made of Roberto Aguayo’s lack of track record in cold-weather conditions after he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round. While his small sample size in this area was not impressive, it is also important to remember that a lack of meaningful data does not indicate a problem, but simply requires more information in order to draw a proper conclusion. In my mind, many kicking camps function in a similar way. They can be used by coaches and evaluators to gather a baseline evaluation on a player, with the caveat that further study is often required in order to gain a full understanding of a kicker’s abilities.
But the issue does not go away at higher levels. No fewer than 13 kickers were invited to camps as undrafted free agents after the draft. The first extended look their coaches and front offices will have at them will not be in swirling winds in Green Bay in December or six inches of snow in Foxboro in January. Rather, they will be looking at players under 80-degree heat and sunshine. The most valuable day a coach can have for evaluating specialists during the summer is a rainy, windy day where no one wants to practice.
The key idea to remember is that different positions have different requirements for proper context for an evaluation. While running backs, linebackers, and nearly every other position can benefit from the summer camp evaluation period, kickers are often missing one of the biggest factors in determining their performance. Adam Vinatieri’s kick in the Tuck Rule Game would not have been anywhere near as impressive had it not occurred during a near-blizzard. Likewise, Vinatieri’s performance the last decade has no doubt benefitted from being indoors no fewer than eight games a year with the Indianapolis Colts. It is only when considering these performances in the context of the situations in which they occurred, and comparing them to other specialists, that it becomes clear that Vinatieri is one of the top kickers, if not the top kicker of all-time. Context is critical to effective evaluation, and for specialists, weather is an important piece of the puzzle that must take on greater importance than with other positions.