The start of the 2016 NFL season was as entertaining as anyone could have expected, with the Denver Broncos clawing their way to a 21-20 victory over the Carolina Panthers. While there were a number of plays that shifted the course of the game, the final-minute missed 50-yard field goal stands out due to…well, being the last meaningful play of the game. Kickers are on an island when it comes to last-minute attempts, and all eyes were on Gano as he looked to put the Panthers up by two. Chuck Zodda explains how Graham Gano missed wide left on the critical kick.
All kickers miss. Find me the a kicker with perfect accuracy and he will be the first. The unfortunate thing about being a kicker is that you are often tasked with putting key points on the scoreboard, with nowhere to hide if you cannot complete your assignment. The good kickers learn and adapt from failure, incorporating changes into their routine and mechanics to improve their overall accuracy, with perfection being the ultimate the goal. But none get there.
On Thursday night, Graham Gano was imperfect.
Over the past five seasons, Gano has been a slightly below-average kicker, making 82% of his field goal attempts compared to 84.3% for the NFL average. His numbers from 50+ yards during this period are slightly better than the NFL mark, as he went 14-for-21, good for 66.7%, while the rest of the league made 63.6%. However, Gano’s major issue during this time has not been missing to the left or right, but rather a massive number of blocked kicks because of low trajectories. Gano has 11 of the 118 blocks over this five-year span, with only three other kickers having more than five. Stripping out blocks, Gano’s accuracy in this time is actually two percentage points higher than the league average, suggesting that if he gets it over the line of scrimmage, it tends to go through the uprights.
So why did Gano miss wide left on Thursday night? Because of a timeout taken by the Broncos, there is tape available on an identical kick that shows the issues in Gano’s mechanics.
The Practice Attempt
Lining up from the left hash, Gano points his left foot at his new holder, Andy Lee, with his right foot offset and pointed just behind Lee:
Unlike kickers using a jab-step, Gano simply rocks forward at the snap, creating a simple start to his motion:
Referees have already blown this attempt dead, as Denver has called its second timeout to attempt to ice Gano. However, he and the rest of the Panthers battery have already started their operation, and get a free practice attempt. The snap is right on the money, directly at the left knee of Lee, who places the ball perfectly:
Gano plants only five to seven inches from the ball, much closer than many other kickers. This works well with his mechanics, as he mimics Derek Jeter’s inside-out swing that drove so many pitches to right field for hits during his career. Gano’s swing is similar, with a close plant that would jam most kickers working with his inside-out swing to help drive the ball with a slight fade:
The image above shows Gano’s hips still powering through the target, even though his leg has whipped through the kicking zone. The downside to this inside-out approach is that if the timing is thrown off, it typically results in a hooking trajectory, which is why Gano takes his extra points from the right hash – typically a more difficult area to kick from for right-footed kickers. Kickers with a more sweeping motion through the kicking zone tend to err by dragging their leg and pushing balls outside the right upright, but with Gano deliberately dragging his leg somewhat, the bigger issue for him is what happens if he gets ahead of himself.
Gano nails his mechanics here, driving the ball through the uprights:
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The Real Thing
With the Broncos calling timeout and attempting to ice the kicker, Gano now has to make a second attempt from 50 yards. Unfortunately, things get just a little out of whack this time, and it is enough to cause the worst-case scenario for the Panthers.
Gano sets up with the same pre-kick posture:Long snapper J.J. Jansen fires back another snap, but this one is a foot and a half high:Lee does a tremendous job not only moving up to grab the ball, but also getting it down and spinning it perfectly for Gano. While much of the focus with Lee was on his punting in his first game with the Panthers, he displays outstanding technique on this hold and executes when things could have gone completely wrong before Gano even struck the ball.
Gano’s timing is slightly off here, as his back foot has already started to move, where in the previous attempt, he had just begun his lean at this point. It’s a minor shift, but may cause him to change his timing later if he felt he may be too early getting to the ball.
Lee gets the snap down, with Gano planting in the same location as his first kick:Despite the pre-strike imperfections, things appear to be in pretty good shape for Gano as he starts his swing. While we had seen Gano’s inside-out mechanics create a slight fade that took every other kick through the right side of the uprights earlier in the night, those mechanics break down enough here to pull the ball outside the left upright:
Gano’s hips and momentum fall slightly outside the left upright, with his foot potentially clipping slightly too far around the ball instead of directly through it as well. How can we tell? In the first attempt, there is a tremendous amount of tension through Gano’s core as his leg whips across to the left, while his hips remain pointed to the right. But in the above still, that tension is not present. Gano’s core is much more relaxed, lacking the hip drive through the target. Gano has the “inside” of his swing, but he misses the “out” that would push the ball in the proper direction.
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Gano is a good kicker. While he has struggled with blocks throughout his career, he has a strong leg and is generally very accurate. This is a bump in the road that he is going to have to navigate, but he has the track record and the skill to be able to do so. While it was a disappointing loss for the Panthers, Gano should be able to rebound from this to continue to perform as an average to slightly above-average kicker in the NFL.
Follow @ITP_ChuckZ on Twitter. Check out his other work here, an unlikely Super Bowl MVP, an under-appreciated great NFL kicker, and his inquiry into the mechanics of why Dan Carpenter keeps missing FGs.
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All images courtesy of NFL Game Pass.