Whether in the 2015 playoffs or 2016 NFL Draft, kickers have had people asking questions recently. Chuck Zodda examines kickers and their place in the game today, and wonders if they belong in football.
“I’ve been talking with the kicker all night?”
That was the last thing the young woman said to me as she turned around and headed back into the twisting labyrinth of bodies and beers in the football fraternity house just after midnight. I was a junior at Dartmouth College, and it appeared I would have to wait a little longer to find the future Mrs. Zodda. Perhaps I should have said I was a punter. They’re people, too.
Kickers are viewed as a necessary evil in the NFL. In a game that prizes physicality, toughness, and machismo, the highest-scoring position in the game is the one that has the least contact with other players. Playing by the rules, in most situations, contact with the kicker is illegal. On drives where eleven players on each side claw and grind for every yard and inch possible, kickers can step in and render all of that work meaningless with a clang of the crossbar or the silence of the air outside an upright.
Is it fair to invalidate the work of the men who toiled and strained to move the ball downfield, only to see it all vanish thanks to a player uninvolved in that struggle?
Placekicking became a specialty in the 1960s, as the Gogolak brothers brought soccer-style kicking to the NFL. The position evolved significantly over the next 50 years, with the last decade seeing the emergence of kicking camps and personal coaches as accuracies hit new highs. Yet even with kickers more accurate than ever, the 2015 NFL season saw two critical playoff matchups determined by missed kicks (Blair Walsh’s missed field goal, and Stephen Gostkowski’s failed extra point attempt).
But the kicking game, as it exists today, was never meant to be.
In 1960, the 13 teams in the NFL attempted 504 field goals. They made 258, good for just 51.2%. The problem was not exclusive to long-distance attempts, either. Their accuracy was just 63.6% on strikes from 20-29 yards over 110 attempts. By comparison, NFL kickers in 2015 made 65.0% of field goals from 50+ yards on 160 attempts.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Kickers today are better from 50+ yards than kickers in 1960 were from 20-29 yards.
But the shift in accuracy is just one of the myriad changes over the last 55 years. Teams attempted an average of 38.7 field goals per season in 1960, compared to 30.8 per season in 2015. So despite near-record accuracies, kickers are utilized 20% less than prior to the soccer-style revolution. Also notable is the fact that the 13 teams in 1960 employed 35 kickers over the course of the season, compared to the 38 used by the 32 teams in 2015. The Buffalo Bills, just on their own, went through five kickers over the course of the 1960 season, giving fans a new target to heckle every three weeks on average. And if that were not enough, the average distance of a field goal attempt has gone from 31.1 yards in 1960, to 38.1 yards today.
In short, NFL kickers today are making 65% more kicks from 22% further away, are used 20% less, and nearly everyone still feels it is not good enough. There is no position in any sport that has seen a similar level of improvement over time. This is the golden age of kickers, and we are unable to appreciate it.
What is most interesting about the place that kickers occupy in the sport is that neither success nor failure seems to be reason for celebration of their inclusion. Make 99.9% of extra points? It’s a chip shot and should be taken out of the game; just give a team seven points for a touchdown. Miss a key attempt in a playoff game? Get rid of kickers, they should not be influencing the game. No matter the outcome, the dissatisfaction with specialists remains.
NFL rules are nothing if not illogical. A running back can lower his head in an attempt to get under a defender to strike an opponent, but that same defender cannot execute a similar move. A wide receiver can stiff-arm a defender’s head to escape with no repercussions, but linemen cannot utilize hands above the chest on either side of the ball. Kickers, likewise, have no natural place in the game. There was no commandment that extra points be kicked after a touchdown, nor that field goals should even be legal. They are relics from the early evolution of Walter Camp’s game.
Should they still be part of today’s NFL?
Let us first look at the effect on the game removing field goals or extra points would have. With kickers as accurate as they are today, teams need to wind up between an opponent’s 30 and 40-yard lines to have a chance to score. While the field is technically 100 yards long, drives much shorter than that distance can result in scores today. Removing field goals likely takes a significant amount of scoring out of the NFL, in theory, replacing it with more punting.
But the effect is not quite as simple. If field goals are removed, so is one of the major reasons for not attempting an onside kick. Today, a botched onside kick attempt means giving an opponent the ball at or near field goal range. In a world without field goals, an opponent still has to drive 35-45 yards on a failed onside kick to score. With the average drive in 2015 being 31.14 yards, this puts onside kicks in play on a more regular basis. Thus, the potential for larger point swings caused by a greater proliferation of onside kicks may be a consequence as well. It also shifts the traits required by kickers to those that are proficient at onside kicks, keeping them in the game in a different role.
This says nothing of the changes in defense or strategy that would occur due to a lack of a kicking game. Teams deep in enemy territory would likely go for it on fourth down, rather than punting from an opponent’s 30-yard line. Touchdown percentage on drives would likely increase, though total scoring percentage would likely decrease. The ramifications as far as personnel and tactics are too complicated to fully extrapolate with any confidence. But the NFL would be a very different game if placekickers are removed.
Different does not necessarily mean worse. But it does mean that we are not necessarily getting more of the game we love. Should a team only be able to score by crossing the goal line? Should there be no credit for mounting a strong drive but stalling out in the red zone?
Sports are often used as teaching tools for life. The importance of teamwork, learning how to bounce back from and overcome challenges, and respecting an opponent are all important parts of what makes sports great.
I believe kickers offer several other lessons.
They show that even if you do not have the classic athletic tools that many other players do, you can still be successful and contribute. After all, kicker are the highest-scoring players in football. Deal with it. They show that through dedication to mastering intricate techniques, you can produce tremendous improvement in results. The shocking rise in accuracy over the last 55 years proves this. They show that how you approach your job mentally is as important as the physical side. Look no further than Adam Vinatieri missing a 31-yarder in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers before bouncing back to hit a 41-yard attempt just prior to time expiring to win the game in front of millions of people.
But there is one key lesson that stands out when examining the kicking game. And it is counterintuitive.
It is that not every event in life has to be viewed as a black and white success. Kicking is often broken down into this mindset – did he make the kick or did he miss it? But in the context of the overall game, the presence of field goals is a reminder that progress, even uncompleted, is still better than stagnation. Imagine playing for an offense that constantly saw its drives stall out at the 10-yard line. In a world with no field goals, an 80-yard drive from a team’s own 10-yard line would have no point value. Yet the ability to score from distance means that all of the work getting the ball down the field was not in vain.
Sure, there will always be misses that frustrate fans, player, and coaches alike. There will always be oddities with specialists, and confusion about how their minds actually work. We are weird, we get that. And we are imperfect, with our flaws magnified more than many other players on the field because of our isolation and specialization. But maybe the small victories that we provide on a consistent basis are enough to keep everyone else moving toward the larger ones.
What kickers have accomplished in the last 55 years is nothing short of remarkable. And just because they do not fit neatly in a box of what a football player should be does not mean that there is not a place in the game for kickers. If dedication to your craft, a pursuit of better performance, and developing the mental toughness needed to block out 60,000 sets of eyes in the stadium and millions more watching on television does not belong in football, then it is a game that has forgotten its purpose.
Next time you see a kicker out at a bar, on the beach, or at the golf course, remember this: You do not have to talk to us. Just acknowledge that we belong in football.