The Cardinals team that I expected to go 3-13 this season closed out a surprise 10-6 year with a close loss to their hated rivals the 49ers on Sunday. In a tight game (San Fran 23, Arizona 20) the kickers were the difference. The Cardinals' Jay Feely missed two makeable field goals (37 and 43 yards) while SF's Phil Dawson provided the three-point margin of victory with a 56 yard moon shot in the 4th quarter. Retrospectives on the season are unanimous, as are fans around the internet, that Feely must be replaced this offseason.
This highlights a fascinating trend in the NFL over the past twenty years. The kicking game has become so accurate that coaches, players, and fans alike treat it as automatic. If a kicker ever misses, his job security is immediately called into question. I've done a bit of research and uncovered some statistics that underscore the point.
For the season Jay "Unemployed" Feely was 30 for 36 on field goals (83%). In 1965, the league leader, long-time Cardinal Jim Bakken, hit 67% of his kicks. In 2013 the worst kicker in the league, an aging Sebastian Janikowski, hit 70%. The league leader, Matt Prater, was a ridiculous 25-of-26 (96%) including an unheard of 64 yarder, a record. The Saints Garrett Hartley was waived a few weeks ago for hitting 73% on the year. So the worst kicker in today's NFL was better than the best kicker in seasons past. Jim Bakken's league-leading 67% from 1965 wouldn't even have been good enough to keep his job today.
Want a few more percentages? The current career leaderboard is dominated by active and recent kickers. Of players with at least three seasons of experience, former Colt Mike Vanderjagt is the all-time leader with 86% for his career. Dozens of other modern kickers are right behind him with career averages between 80 and 85 percent. Jan Stenerud, the sole kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and widely recognized as a legend, hit 66% for his career. George Blanda, another Hall of Famer as a QB and K, held the NFL scoring record for decades following his retirement and was a 52% career FG kicker. And he was a full-time kicker in the NFL for twenty-six years.
It's not just about accuracy; let's talk about distance. The NFL career mark for over-50 yard FGs is held by Jason Hanson, who made 52 such kicks. Morten Andersen, considered widely to be the greatest long-range kicker in history upon his retirement, made 40 (on 84 attempts!) in his career. In 2012, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh made ten-of-ten FGs over 50 yards. That is, in one season he got a quarter of the way to Andersen's total from 22 seasons. And he didn't miss a single one. Hall of Famer Stenerud made a grand total of 17 kicks from over 50. Walsh will surpass that in his third season. Of the 14 field goals made from 60 or more yards in NFL history, half (7/14) have been since 2010. Sixty-yarders aren't exactly routine but they're no longer rare.
One final stats: League-wide, kickers made 13% of kicks over 50 yards in the 1960s. Since 2000 the number is 54% and increasing annually. What was once seen for what it is – a remarkably difficult thing to do, kicking an oblong ball through six-yard wide uprights from 150+ feet over a seven-plus foot wall of men trying to block it – is now routine:
When Jason Hanson entered the NFL nearly two decades ago, he got hugs and high-fives for nailing a long field goal. Now, he's lucky to get a handshake. "It used to be 45 and over was, 'Great kick! You made it!"' the Detroit Lions kicker recounted. "Now, it's like, you miss under 50 and people are kind of like, 'What's the matter?"'
So what gives? The two most obvious answers are, one, that kickers are becoming better, stronger athletes just like every other NFL player. Compare the 230-pound offensive linemen and the scrawny 5'10" receivers of the 60s and 70s with the 350-pound behemoths and 6'3" 220-pound sprinters of today and the difference is obvious. The second big change was the development of the soccer-style kick as opposed to the traditional straight-on approach, a topic I've written about at length previously due to the influx of hilariously-named foreign kickers it brought into the NFL.
There are additional factors. There is better coaching from an earlier age combined with the era of specialization. Today's kickers are kickers – period. George Blanda kicked but was also a QB. Ditto Hall of Famers like QB Bob Waterfield, RB Paul Hornung, and OL Lou Groza. Teams didn't have "a kicker" prior to 1960. It was whoever they had at some other position that happened to be the best at kicking. They lined up during training camp and took a whack at it and the coach picked someone to kick (and punt). It was not unusual for six or seven different players on the roster to attempt a kick during a season. Today kickers are dedicated kickers from Pee Wee and high school football up to the pro level. And they have specific kicking coaches all along the way. Specialization has also taken place with the kickers' best friends, the long-snappers, who now do nothing but long-snap and place the ball precisely in the right spot. Every time.
One other thing is often overlooked, in my opinion: the playing surface has improved. Kicking is extremely sensitive to weather (Remember the hilarious kicks in that Bears-Niners game in gale force winds a few years ago?) and the field. In rain or snow or wind, accuracy falls rapidly. Well now we have domed stadiums all over the league and either impeccable grass surfaces or advanced artificial ones like FieldTurf. Compare that to the muddy, sparse cow pastures teams played on (in outdoor stadiums) in the past and there's no question it helps.
The kicking game has become almost too accurate; the machine-like precision of modern kickers is changing the game. Today, as soon as a team gets across the 40 yard line it's getting to be an automatic 3 points. This has led to calls to narrow the goalposts in an effort to make the game less predictable, although that proposal has been met without enthusiasm. Fans know that the sport has changed a lot over the years, but it's odd to think of a guy like Jay Feely getting the pink slip over a performance that a few years ago might have earned him a case full of trophies.