Many people have long viewed kickers as a necessary evil. Some have wondered whether kickers belong in football. After missing big kicks, many question whether their team should ever trust their kicker. But the fact remains that we are currently witnessing the best league-wide kicker performances in history. So the NFL wants to change that by making the game harder. Chuck Zodda evaluates this potential move.
On July 18, the NFL announced it will be placing computer chips in footballs during the 2016 preseason. While many have advocated this in recent years as a way to improve the accuracy of ball placement after offensive plays, the NFL instead chose to note that it may be used to make changes to the kicking game.
What kinds of changes?
Speaking with John Kryk of the Toronto Sun, Dean Blandino, the NFL vice president of officiating, said, “The discussion has really revolved around narrowing the uprights.”
In short, what the league is attempting to do here is track the location at which field goals and extra points pass the crossbar and uprights, in order to determine how far the uprights should be narrowed in order to get field goal accuracies to acceptable levels. Since the only thing Blandino mentioned was narrowing the uprights, it is safe to assume the NFL is not discussing making the target larger, but rather, that kickers have become so proficient that the game must be made more difficult for them.
There is no doubt that we are living in the golden age of kickers – the only question is whether this is a temporary phenomenon or whether the upward trajectory of accuracy over the last 50+ years shown by Benjamin Morris in his fantastic article, “Kickers Are Forever,” will continue. Given the trends in development, with more kickers getting coaching at earlier ages and the proliferation of kicking camps and one-on-one instruction, it is unlikely that kickers are going to suddenly regress significantly, though the pace of improvement may slow as much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked to this point.
This raises the question of why the NFL wants to penalize kickers for being so good at their jobs.
The rise of offense in the modern NFL has been well-documented. Quarterbacks, in particular, have been beneficiaries of innovation on the offensive side of the ball, assisted as well by rule changes that have reduced the tools available to defensive players to cover some of the best athletes on the planet. The result? As shown by this image from Blogging the Boys, a steady upward trend in quarterback rating:
Yet while there have been occasional remarks that the modern game is tilted too heavily toward favoring the offensive side of the ball, the NFL Competition Committee and league leaders have never indicated any desire to deviate from the path the league has been on. Increased scoring has correlated strongly with increased viewership, and though causation is impossible to prove, the NFL is likely hesitant to do anything to shift this relationship in the near-future.
But kickers are different.
Kickers apparently have gotten too good. We are now at the point where one of the most powerful men in the league in terms of his ability to influence the on-field product has come out and said the league is actively looking for ways to make the game more difficult for kickers. Offense is good, except when it comes from the highest-scoring players in the game. For them, there apparently is such a thing as too much offense.
The next question then, is how much of a reduction in accuracy does the NFL want to see?
Do they want to see kickers making just over 50% of their field goals, as they did in the 1960 season? Do they want to see a reduction to the 70-75% range that fans watched during the 1990s and early 2000s? It is unclear. And it should be – there has never previously been a mandate from the league to have kickers make a certain percentage of kicks. Kicking a football has been the same for the last 60 years, with the only change being the shift in technique to soccer-style kicking. In fact, even with kickers better than ever, kickers are used 20% less than in 1960, meaning the NFL is not deluged by field goals in some unstoppable rain of footballs that never ceases. In fact, NFL teams are kicking less than ever.
When position players run faster, the NFL does not force them to wear weighted vests to slow them down to how the game was played in the 1960s. When quarterbacks become more accurate, the NFL does not require them to play with a slicked ball that negates this advantage. Yet kickers, despite simply showing up and going to work every day, are now on the verge of being told, for the second time in three years, “You are too good. You are ruining football.”
With that in mind, let us examine some of the ways a narrowing of the uprights may impact the game in a negative way:
- Reduced overall scoring
- More punts from an opposing team’s 40-yard line
- Less opportunity for comebacks because of increase in all-or-nothing scoring on drives
- Increased scoring difficulty after onside kick
- Greater likelihood of use of two-point conversion
These are very real impacts that alter game strategy beyond simply what occurs on field goals and extra points. But the NFL is undeniably interested in making the game more difficult for kickers. It is not due to player safety, it is not due to the integrity of the league, it is due to the fact that for some reason, kickers appear to operate by a different set of rules than other positions on a football team.
It remains to be seen exactly what the NFL proposes after its study. Perhaps it will be a simple one-foot narrowing on each side, perhaps it will be a crossbar that is a foot higher. Or it could be a massive change that drastically reshapes the kicking game and overall strategy.
While the NFL is likely to pursue a course in 2017 based on Blandino’s statement, there is one proposal they could consider simultaneously in order to provide balance to what they are doing to the kicking game. A shift in the value of long field goals, whether from over 50, 55, or 60 yards, to either four or five points, would likely provide enough incentive to NFL teams to continue to utilize kickers in a manner similar to today. It is unsightly and it goes against the history of the game, but at a time when the league seems dead-set on punishing kickers for their success, it may be the only option to keep things similar to how they are today.